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.
Saturday, May 5
Ezekiel 26: The dating of this first oracle against the Phoenicians is obviously incomplete; it tells us the year (during the reign of Jehoiakin) and the day of the month, but not the month! Clearly the text has suffered in transmission. That is, some copyist made an error on this text when he transcribed it many centuries ago.
In spite of this circumstance, we can fix the date of this oracle fairly closely, at least within a month or two. Since it indicates that Jerusalem has already fallen (verse 2), we do have an earliest possible period, the summer of 586, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind that the news of Jerusalem’s fall did not reach the exiles in Babylon until the following December (cf. 33:21). Therefore, we should date this text sometime shortly afterwards, between January and March of 585.
Tyre, an ancient capital of the seafaring merchant Phoenicians, was an island off the coast that we now know as Lebanon. The Phoenicians were of far greater mercantile and geopolitical stature than the little nations condemned in the previous chapter. The merchant ships and protecting navy plied all over the Mediterranean and adjoining seas. She placed her colonies (including Carthage) on every coast. Two thousand years before Vasco da Gama, Phoenician ships had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, turned south, and explored the entire west coast of Africa, down to and around the cape.
Secure on its island, Tyre was not easily threatened by land attack, nor did the Babylonians have a navy on the Mediterranean. (Indeed, Tyre would not be successfully reduced by siege until 332, when Alexander the Great, having already dismissed his expensive mercenary navy, constructed a causeway to Tyre from the mainland, moving his army to besiege the city. That causeway has gradually accumulated a good deal of silt over the years, so that Tyre now sits on the end of a thin peninsula.)
Ezekiel’s complaint against Tyre is this: When Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586, the citizens of Tyre used the occasion to ask themselves a single question: “How can we make money from this situation?” Their reduction of a moral event to a purely economic concern was the substance of their sin.
Moral questions are always “of what sort”: right or wrong, true or false? Moral questions are qualitative. The Phoenicians, however, had become a “quantitative” people, interested only in “how much?” In due course, said Ezekiel, they will pay for it, and the price — the “how much?” — will be very dear.
Although Tyre did not weep for the fall of Jerusalem, other nations will certainly weep for the fall of Tyre. This is the first of several oracles against the Phoenicians, and St. John will later cite some of this material in the Book of Revelation, where he prophesies against the major military and economic power of his own time, Rome.
Sunday May 6
Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezekiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.
A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre drew the wood for its shipwrights from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Fittingly, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.
Ephesians 4:7-16: This text speaks of the gift of Christ to each of us.
Concerning this, 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.
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.
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 is consciously picked out and personally chosen by Christ.
Monday, May 7
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): Much of this psalm revels in the wonder of nature, the strength of the mountains, the raging of the seas, and the rain falling “into the little valleys.” Unlike so many of the “nature psalms,” however, Psalm 65 begins indoors, so to speak—under the porticos of the temple. The psalmist commences, not out on the mountaintop—”Who in his strength setteth fast the mountains”—but in the holy place at Jerusalem.
Tuesday, May 8
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 will 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 9
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.
John 6:6-71: A true crisis in Jesus’ work seems to have developed near the beginning of its second year. It was at the halfway point in his ministry—its second Passover (John 6:4), one year before his execution—that “many of his disciples backed off and walked with him no more” (6:66). Also, it was at that time, John tells us, that Jesus foresaw which of the disciples would be his betrayer (6:70-71).
It is reasonable to date, at this period, the first two of Jesus’ predictions of those things that would, in the end, befall him in Jerusalem. It was then that Jesus “began” to talk about the terrible things that would befall him (Mark 8:31; 9:30-31).
Psalm 72 (Greek & Latin 71): This psalm is often referred to as a “messianic” psalm, in the sense that it is concerned with God’s “anointed” king. Considering only the simplest reading of this psalm, it is difficult to escape the impression that it was composed for use at the ceremonies of royal coronation, the ritual point of dynastic transition: “Grant Your justice to the king, O God, and Your righteousness to the king’s son.” The title added to this psalm does, in fact, ascribe it to Solomon, the first successor to the Davidic throne.
Two narrative sections of Holy Scripture readily come to mind in connection with the themes of Psalm 71. 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.
Thursday, May 10
Ezekiel 31: The oracle in this chapter is dated June 21, 587 B.C. (verse 1). It is constructed of a lengthy and highly detailed poem describing Egypt as a large, imperial tree, dominating the landscape and offering shelter to all the nations (31:1-9). In his portrayal of this tree, Ezekiel once again resorts to the imagery of paradise (verses 8-9).
This poem is followed by a commentary in prose (verses 10-18), prophesying the downfall of Egypt. The great height of the tree, reaching up into the clouds, symbolizes man’s political and economic endeavors to attain heaven on earth by his own resources. To Ezekiel it is a symbol of arrogance, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The cedar, which in olden times was symbolic of great longevity, represents man’s quest for a utopian permanence, a quest common to political idolatry.
Throughout the entire chapter the reader will observe in particular the image of water, bearing in mind Egypt’s long-time reliance on the Nile River and its highly developed system of irrigation.
Psalm 74 (Greek & Latin 73): This psalm provides a challenge to the modern theory which explains the world as the product of a random evolution. In such a view, intelligibility is not a characteristic of the world itself, but only of the human mind. Intelligibility, or “sense,” implies structure, or knowable form. In contrast, the “random” is that which has no intelligible structure. This is why we say that accidents are “senseless.” A random world, then, is necessarily a world without sense, a world devoid of knowable forms.
The God of this psalm 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.
Friday, May 11
Ezekiel 32: This chapter contains Ezekiel’s final two oracles against Egypt:
The first of these (though given later than the one that follows it), is dated on March 3, 585 (verse 1). Although it was delivered during the winter that followed the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, no reference is made to that event. Some of the imagery of this oracle recalls the plagues with which the Lord had long before struck the land of Egypt: the floods of blood and the great darkness (the first and ninth plagues). The great sin of Egypt declared in this oracle was pride.
The second (and earlier) of these two oracles was delivered on April 27, 586, prior to Jerusalem’s downfall. In his massive and detailed description of the nether world, Ezekiel sounds a theme from classical literature; the attentive reader can hardly fail to notice the similarities that this oracle has to the nether world descriptions in the Odyssey and the Aeneid.
Ezekiel’s description is similarly preoccupied with the thought of warfare and conquest. As Homer and Virgil portrayed the netherworld in the context of the fall of Troy, Ezekiel portrays it in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, it is in the netherworld, the realm of death, that the prophet finishes his oracles against those nations that rose up in rebellion against God’s authority over history. This second part of the Book of Ezekiel comes to an end.
First Samuel 1: 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 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 pastoral shortcomings.