Friday, April 15

Psalm 105 (Greek & Latin 104): Following the primitive schema preserved in Deuteronomy 26:1–9, the narrative of Psalm 105 breaks into three parts: the Patriarchs, the sojourn in Egypt, and the Exodus, all of them joined by the themes of God’s fidelity to His covenant promises and His active providence in fulfilling them.

While the whole psalm deals with God’s providence on behalf of all the people, the second section, dealing with the sojourn in Egypt, also includes what we may think of as “individual” providence. What the Bible portrays as God’s care for the history of the whole people of Israel is shown also to be at work in the life and destiny of a single man. It is the awesome story of Joseph and God’s care for him through many trials. Sold by his brothers into Egypt, falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, forsaken for twenty years, the faith of Joseph was still able to say, at the end: “God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . God sent me before you. . . . But as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 45:5, 7; 50:20). Joseph’s faith in God’s providence, even as he was proved by steel and fire, is preserved also in this psalm: “[God] sent a man before them, Joseph, sold into slavery. They humbled his feet with fetters; his soul was shackled in iron. Until his word came to pass, the word of the Lord seared through him.”

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 worse (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).

Saturday, April 16

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.

Sunday, April 17

Psalms 103 (Greek & Latin 102): One observes this psalm a great effort to take into one’s own heart God’s manifold acts of mercy all through the history of the Bible. This is the God “who made His ways known to Moses, His deeds to the children of Israel.” This is the historical God of the covenant and the commandments: “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them.” It is to this interiorization of the commandments, this “remembrance” of the everlasting covenant, that this psalm summons the soul: “Forget not all His benefits; He forgives all your iniquities.”

This inner knowledge of the forgiving mercy of God is the substance of the covenant that we have with God in Christ: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts. . . For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Jer. 31:33, 34; Heb. 8:10, 12). This knowledge of the true God is inseparable from the forgiveness of our sins: “ . . . To give knowledge of salvation to His people / By the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

The soul is called to the contemplation of God’s infinite, forgiving mercy: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. . . He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Indeed not, for “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

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.

Monday, April 18

Psalm 44 (Greek & Latin 43): This prayer begins with an appeal to Tradition: “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us.” Such an appeal to the lessons of history is, of course, standard in the Bible, for the biblical God is, first and last, “the God of our fathers.” Thus, the message of Genesis has to do with God’s fidelity to Israel’s patriarchs, while Exodus tells of Israel’s redemption by that same patriarchal God. Other historical books of the Bible narrate the continued faithfulness of His promises to an unfaithful people. The prophetic literature, likewise, constantly looks back to God’s redemptive work throughout Israel’s history, as both paradigm and prophecy of what He will do for His people in the future.

A similar note is sounded strongly in the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, is forever appealing to the moral lessons of history, that complex of disciplines and standards learned by experience, prescribed by the authority of Tradition and handed down through succeeding generations. In this case too, biblical religion is essentially an inherited religion, and its Lord is “the God of our fathers.”

Tradition is also the note on which our psalm begins, then, almost its entire first half being taken up with a review of past experience. But God is not only the God of the patriarchs in the past; He is also our own God, one and the same: “You are my king and my God, You who command victories for Jacob.”

Then suddenly the psalm’s tone changes, for the reassuring lessons from the past are now being put sternly to the test: “But You have cast us off and put us to shame. You no longer march forth with our armies; You have turned us back from the foe, and our enemies plunder us at will.”

The situation here may be likened to that of Job. He too had ever endeavored to be pleasing to the God of the fathers, steadfastly following the high moral precepts handed down from authorities of old. If one reads carefully what is said of Job in the first chapter of the book that bears his name, it is clear that he is a perfect embodiment of the traditional prescriptive norms treated in Proverbs and Israel’s other wisdom literature.

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 resembled one another, the prophet reflects, both cities unfaithful to God, like two loose women who could not 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.

Tuesday, April 19

Psalms 45 (Greek & Latin 44): “The kingdom of heaven,” we are told by a uniquely reliable source, “is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son” (Matt. 22:2), that marriage’s consummation being the definitive aim of our destiny, and all of history constituting the courtship that prepares and anticipates the yet undisclosed hour of its fulfillment. Thus, the end of time is announced by the solemn proclamation: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!” (Matt. 25:6).

This interpretation of history as the preparation for a royal wedding ceremony is so pervasive and obvious in Holy Scripture that we Christians, taking it so much for granted, may actually overlook it or give it little thought. Indeed, in this modern materialistic world there is a distinct danger that we too may forget that the present life is but the preparation for another, its many and manifold efforts only a provisioning for the greater future, its varied blessings but rehearsals for the greater joy.

The modern materialistic world seems to know nothing of all this, believing in no future outside of its immediate and perceived needs. Its gross but unduly modest aspirations are well summed up by Dr. Johnson’s bull: “Here is this cow, and here is this grass: what more could I ask?” Beyond these gratifications, the spokesman for the purely materialistic world nourishes no further hope.

To counter such forgetfulness of our future, therefore, God’s Holy Writ repeatedly reminds us of that coming wedding day of the King’s Son: “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. . . . ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 19:7, 9).

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 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.

Wednesday, April 20

Psalm 49 (Greek & Latin 48): This psalm about the sad fate of those who substitute honor and wealth for the godly understanding of life and reality. Having taken their wealth and honor seriously, “like sheep they are herded in Hades; death becomes their shepherd.”

This is the same spiritual descent described by Plato. Indeed, he uses the very same words. Time, honor or reputation, according to Plato, is the next step down from wisdom, and plousia, wealth, is yet a step lower. Wisdom, on the other hand, has to do with the pursuit of justice, and Plato’s model, Socrates, accepting the unjust sentence of his enemies, proclaims that the difference between just and unjust men is well recognized at that high tribunal on the other side of death. Like our psalmist here, Socrates does not fear what his honored and wealthy enemies can do to him.

Indeed, our psalm is one of those places where the wisdom tradition of the Bible touches universal philosophy, mankind’s perennial quest for understanding. Not once in this melodic poem does the psalmist refer to God’s special revelation to the Chosen People. No appeal is made to the divine words spoken on Sinai or to the Prophets. Here we find, rather, the God-inspired thought of biblical man addressing the human mind on its own terms. This psalm is one of those places where the Bible forsakes, as it were, the greater heights of divine truth in order to concentrate man’s attention on the lowest steps to its ascent. The fear of the Lord, the psalmist tells us elsewhere, is the very beginning of wisdom, and this psalm is a plain, straightforward summons to a godly fear.

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.

Thursday, April 26

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.

Friday, April 22

Psalm 40 (Greek & Latin 39): The correct “voice for this psalm 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.

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.