Friday, April 20
Ezekiel 11: The first oracle in this chapter addresses a slogan going around Jerusalem at the time, descriptive of the city’s coming destruction. The slaying of Jerusalem’s citizens, says the oracle, will ultimately be the fault of their leaders, not of the Babylonian besiegers. The latter are but instruments in the divine judgment.
The leaders back at Jerusalem planned big things for themselves, and their big plans are addressed in the second oracle. When Ezekiel and his other companions, including the cream of Jerusalem society and its most competent citizens, were taken hostage to Babylon in 597, some of those Israelites who remained in the Holy Land began to feel pretty good about their own prospects, now that the better rivals were gone. With respect to their brethren who had been carried away, they reflected: “Well, too bad for them, but that leaves more for us.”
The burden of this second oracle is to reassure those captives in Babylon that the Lord had not forgotten them and that He was determined to restore them. Indeed, it was on them that His coming blessings would fall, for their restoration is the substance of the great prophecy here about newness of heart, which becomes so important a theme in the New Testament (See especially Hebrews 8.)
As this chapter ends, the Cloud of the divine glory moves east onto the top of the Mount of Olives, and Ezekiel is restored to Babylon, where he narrates his visions and oracles to his companions in exile.
Psalms 16 (Greek & Latin 15): We may be sure that Psalm 16 was among the psalms interpreted by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that exegeted by the Church in her very first sermon when she came rushing with power from the upper room on Pentecost. According to the Apostle Peter, who preached that sermon, Psalm 15 describes the Resurrection of Christ:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face, / For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. / Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; / Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. / For You will not leave my soul in Hades, / Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. / You have made known to me the ways of life; / You will make me full of joy in Your presence” (Acts 2:22–28).
Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in Psalm 15, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy.
Saturday, April 21
Ezekiel 12: Once again Ezekiel is charged to act out an elaborate pantomime as a message for his fellow Israelites in exile. Whereas the previous such actions, in Chapters 4-5, had to do with the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of her citizens, the present instance is concerned with the experience of the coming new exile of those who still remained back home.
When his fellow exiles ask him, “What are you doing?” (12:9), Ezekiel responds with a stirring oracle by way of explanation: To those Jewish exiles already in Babylon who are imagining that they may soon be returning to the land of Judah, Ezekiel is stressing the point, “You think this is exile? You haven’t seen anything yet!”
He emphasizes in particular the suffering destined for Zedekiah, the King of Judah. Ezekiel’s walking with covered face (“that you may not see the land”) is an eerie prophecy of the day when the Babylonians would gouge out the eyes of Zedekiah, so that the execution of his sons would be the last thing he saw in this world before going into exile (2 Kings 25:4-7; Jeremiah 39:4-7; 52:7-11).
In verse 17 the prophet begins yet another pantomime, this one much simpler, and in verses 21-28 Ezekiel is charged to challenge two more cynical slogans popular at the time. These slogans, concerned with apparently unfulfilled prophecies, will lead into his condemnation of false prophets in the next chapter.
Matthew 24:1-14: In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.
With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.
Sunday, April 22
Ezekiel 13: This chapter contains an oracle against the false prophets (13:2-16) and an oracle against false prophetesses (verses 17-23). The major problem with all such folk is that they “prophesy out of their own minds” and “follow their own spirit” and “divined a lie.” Thus, grave spiritual harm befalls those who listen to their fantasies and follow their counsels.
Even though a wall is just about to fall, says Ezekiel, they daub it with whitewash to make it look new and secure. Well, the whole thing is about to come down, he warns, in spite of the false hopes raised by false prophets.
In his oracle against the false prophetesses, Ezekiel speaks of wristbands and headbands (if these things are, indeed, what these rare Hebrew words refer to), evidently the paraphernalia of their rituals and incantations. We should probably think of these women as fortune-tellers, the sort of charlatans that are still among us. The prophet’s point here is that this sort of thing is not harmless; foolish individuals, who probably need sound counsel for important decisions, really do pay heed to such imposters, rather often to the harm of their souls. God will thwart the designs of these deceivers, says Ezekiel, by showing their predictions to be false.
First Peter 1:13-25: This section is an invitation to hope (verses 13,21). Christian hope is sustained by a twofold consideration: First, it is inspired by the final goal of the life in Christ (verses 13-17), and second, by the initial grace of the life in Christ (verses 18-21).
With respect to the first, hope is directed to the final “revelation of Jesus Christ,” his “being made visible” (apokalypsis—verses 7,13; 4:13). Relying “completely” (teleios) on this hope, believers refuse to conform to the deeds of their past, aware of their responsibility to be holy, even as God is holy (verses 14-16; Leviticus 19:2; 18:1-5,30; Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 29.1—30.1).
In the New Testament the expression “be not conformed” (me syschematizesthe, in which we observe the English word “schema”) is found only here (verse 14) and in Romans 12:2—“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (We observe in passing that both of these works are associated with the church at Rome.) No less than the Chosen People of old, Christians are called to be a holy people in the midst of an unholy world. The latter is characterized by “ignorance” and “passions” (verse 14). We may compare this passage with 1 Thessalonians 4:5—“not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
Monday, April 23
Ezekiel 14: In verses 1-11, the elders who came to consult Ezekiel got more than they anticipated, because the prophet was given insight into the deeper idolatry of their hearts. These men were apparently looking for some prediction about the future, only to be told that God’s prophetic word is not truly available for the unrepentant. That is to say, the prophet’s task was not to satisfy human curiosity about future events, but to call sinners to the due consideration of their souls. To borrow a concise expression from Saint Augustine, the prophet’s task is often that of prescribing, not predicting: praecipientis videlicet, non praedicentis modo—The City of God15.7).
Thus, instead of responding to their query about the future, Ezekiel summons these men to look inside themselves, at the idolatry in their hearts, before it is too late.
The second oracle in this chapter (verses 12-23) insists that the whole society, if it is unfaithful to God, will be punished as a whole. The Lord will not spare any society simply for the sake of a few just men in it, even if these latter include the likes of Noah, Daniel, and Job. While the just individuals themselves will be respected, this will have no affect on the lot of the whole, because God is fair and will render to each man according to his deserts.
Before God’s throne of judgment, therefore, it will not matter “who you know.” This thesis, which will be repeated throughout the Book of Ezekiel, is identical to that in the Book of Jeremiah (for instance, 15:1-4), and is a great deal tougher than we find, for instance, in Genesis 18, where it appears that the presence of five just men would have spared the destruction of Sodom.
First Peter 2:1-12: Peter’s metaphor of milk was common among the early Christians and referent to the catechesis associated with Baptism (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 2:7; Hebrews 5:13; The Odes of Solomon 8.13-16; 9.1-2). Very early (at least by the second century, but perhaps earlier) this image affected even the liturgical customs at Baptism, when the newly baptized were given a cup of milk mixed with honey (Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition 23.2; Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.14; The Crown 3.3).
By means of this spiritual milk of Christian teaching, we “grow unto salvation” (avxsehete eis soterian). Salvation has to do with growth (cf. Mark 4:8,20; 2 Corinthians 10:15; Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:10). Few texts in the New Testament are more emphatic that salvation is the term of a growth, not a once-and-for-all event that is behind us. Salvation still lies before us (1:5,7,9). Drinking milk, therefore, is more than an obligation; it is a need.
Believers, having tasted this milk, know by experience that the “Lord is gracious” (verse 3; Psalms 34 :9; Hebrews 6:5). In Greek this expression, chrestos ho Kyrios, differs in only one letter from “Christ is the Lord”—Christos ho Kyrios. The psalm cited here (Psalms 34, but 33 in the Greek and Latin texts used by the Church) has long been a favorite at the time of receiving Holy Communion (cf. Apostolic Constitutions 8.13.16; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 5.20; Jerome, Letters 71.6), nor is the imagination overly taxed to think that this may already have been the case at the time of St. Peter.
Tuesday, April 24
Ezekiel 15: This parable of the vine wood is more reflective than ecstatic, more analytical, and rational than poetic; it conveys the studious, logical aspect of Ezekiel’s thought.
And the message of this parable could hardly be more straightforward or less complicated: Vines and their stocks are of no constructive use unless they are still in the process of growing grapes. Once they have stopped doing that, they are useless for any constructive purpose. Unlike other kinds of wood, the vine wood cannot be used to fashion homes or furniture or even basic tools. Indeed, one cannot employ such wood to make an instrument so elementary as a wall peg on which to hang a pot in the kitchen. (The partial burn damage in verse 5 alludes to the partial exile of Jerusalem’s citizens in 597, some five years earlier.)
However, the parable proceeds to say, this wood can still be burned! No matter how otherwise useless, it still makes decent fuel. So, says the Lord, let Jerusalem take heed, because He has not seen any fruit on that vine for many a year.
The motif of this parable should put one in mind of Jesus’ cursing of the barren fig tree in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Both Ezekiel’s parable and Jesus’ parabolic action had to do with impending destructions of Jerusalem.
Inasmuch as Jerusalem is also a mystic symbol of the soul, the moral sense of this parable is applicable to us all on a daily basis. It is the other side of the Gospel injunction that we are to live lives that bear fruit; otherwise we are useless to God for any constructive purpose.
First Peter 2:13-25: Since Christians from the very beginning have struggled to understand how the Gospel affects their duties in whatever state they find themselves, it is not surprising, therefore, that early Christian pastors addressed such concerns at length. This is true of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 3:18—4:1; Ephesians 5:22—6:9; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10), Ignatius of Antioch (Polycarp 4.1—6.3), Polycarp of Smyrna (Philadelphians 4.2—6.3), and Clement of Rome (Corinthians 270-275,286-291). It also appears in standard pre-baptismal catechesis of the period (Didache 4.9-11; Pseudo-Barnabas 19.5-7).
This is the social setting for Peter’s treatment of the same theme in the section that we come to now. Even while we are sojourners in this world, he says (2:11), we are still citizens that have obligations to society and the government, including the emperor [Nero!] (verses 13-17). Some of us are servants, with obligations to our masters (verses 18-25). Some are wives, with duties to our homes and husbands (3:1-6), and others are husbands, responsible for the wellbeing of our wives (3:7).
In the present chapter Peter speaks of Christian citizenship under the authority of the State and of Christian servants under the authority of their masters.
Wednesday April 25
Ezekiel 16: This parable is more elaborate than the one in the previous chapter, showing more evidence of allegorical detail. Both parables convey roughly the same message. Each parable is an illustration of failure. A beautiful but egregiously unfaithful wife is as useless as a cut and dried vine.
Several of the various details in this account of the harlot refer to specific periods and events in Israel’s history: the origins of the people, the time of the Covenant, the founding of the united kingdom and the prosperity of the Solomonic era, and the division into two kingdoms.
The oracle’s final part prepares the listeners for Jerusalem’s impending doom, which is to be like the earlier total destructions of Sodom and Samaria. Jerusalem, says the Lord, is more evil than either of these.
At the very end, however—after Jerusalem has fallen—appears a message of hope and renewal. Even the prophets most pessimistic about Jerusalem at this time, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, never cease to trust in God’s ultimate mercy. In particular, God will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents, a theme to be elaborated in Chapter 18.
First Peter 3:1-12: In the first few verses Peter finishes his treatment of social duties, continued from the previous chapter.
He begins with the wives, whom he exhorts to be submissive to their husbands. This is to be the case, says Peter, even in those instances where the husband is an unbeliever (verse 1). (This is the situation in which a woman already married becomes a Christian. In no case may a Christian woman actually marry an unbeliever—2 Corinthians 6:15-18.) In this case, as in the case of a Christian living in civil society (2:15), Peter hopes for the good influence of the believer on the unbeliever.
Peter probably intends some of his comments here to pertain to Christian women generally, and not just to wives. This is surely the case respecting chastity and modesty (verse 3-5). His concern in this regard is similar to that of Isaiah (3:16-24), who apparently enjoyed poking fun at the way the women in the eighth century loved to preen themselves.
In spite of Abraham’s frequently unhappy home life, much of it caused by his wife’s dramatic mood swings, Peter still holds out for Christian wives the example of Sarah (verse 6). This is not the only time in the New Testament where Sarah is “given a pass” (cf. Hebrews 11:11 compared with Genesis 18:12-15).
Christian husbands are to be good husbands precisely because they are Christians (verse 7). What is owed to the wife is “honor,” and this because she is “weaker.” This does not refer to physical weakness generally (and certainly not to any alleged intellectual or moral weakness in women, something that only an inexperienced fool would fancy), but to a certain psychological delicacy in the female. Peter is quietly presuming that a woman’s constitution, which is far more “complicated” than a man’s, renders her inherently more vulnerable to danger, much like the delicacy of an expensive vase. Indeed, Peter even uses the metaphor of a “vessel.” This is a dining room vessel, not a ship. Certain things of beauty and delicacy in the home are given special honor. Wives are to be treated in a similar way by Christian husbands. They are NEVER to be handled roughly, not even in thought, and most certainly not in word.
The affection, respect, deference, courtesy, compassion, and tenderness necessary to life in the home is to be extended to the larger home of the Church, and thence to the rest of society (verses 8-9). This effort will be expressed in a stern control of one’s tongue (verse 10) and the steady quest to create atmospheres of peace (verse 11). Blessing must cover all things (verse 9). (I refer the reader here to the Book of Ruth, where he is counseled to count the constant blessings that its sundry characters heap on one another. Christians must pass up no opportunity to bless.)
Thursday, April 26
Ezekiel 17: This allegorical riddle is concerned with the geopolitical maneuvering dominant in the royal court at Jerusalem during the period between 597 and 586 B.C.
The first eagle in the riddle is the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (604-562); the second is Pharaoh Psammetichus II of Egypt (595-589). Sitting at either end of the Fertile Crescent, both Babylon and Egypt sought to make their military, economic, and political power felt throughout the region, and each of these two great centers had its friends and confederates within the Jerusalem court.
The removed branch in the allegory is King Jehoiakin of Judah, deposed from his throne in 597 and transported to Babylon. The new seed in the allegory is King Zedekiah, who replaced Jehoiakin and served as a vassal of Babylon. Because of the many machinations in his court, Zedekiah’s foreign policy was marked by vacillation and instability. Unable to maintain his covenant with God, he was likewise unable to maintain his vassal covenant with Babylon. The one infidelity led to the other (verses 11-19).
Even though he was thriving under Babylonian suzerainty, the allegory goes on to say, Zedekiah endeavored to forsake his political obligations to the authority at the western end of the Fertile Crescent, and began to cultivate friendship with the eastern end, Egypt. Now he must pay for it. His sin consisted in seeking a purely political solution for a mainly spiritual and moral problem.
This oracle ends, nonetheless, on a note of future hope for the house of David, a hope that the Christian knows is fulfilled in great David’s greater Son.
First Peter 3:13-22: To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings. As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.
In verses 18-22 Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The relationship of Christian Baptism to the Flood and Noah’s Ark, found here explicitly for the first time, became a common trope in Christian biblical exegesis.
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.