Friday, May 20

Ezekiel 35: In this chapter we find expressed toward the Edomites, symbolized in Mount Seir, that same spirit of bitter condemnation that inspired the entire prophecy of Obadiah and the last several verses of Psalm 137 (136).

The material here expands on ideas found in a seminal form in Ezekiel 25:12-14. Edom has assisted and cheered on the Babylonians in their wanton destruction of the temple (cf. 1 Esdras 4:45). Ezekiel is our witness that the Edomites hoped to annex territory left open by the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (verse 10), but they will not do so, he tells us, because God has other plans for that land. Those plans of God form the substance of the next chapter.

The Edomites in the Bible comprised what we may call . . . well, a special case. Israel did not like them very much. Indeed, the Lord had to command Israel not to despise the Edomites (Deuteronomy 23:7), a thing they were prompted to do, perhaps, on the excuse that the Lord Himself was said to hate Esau, the father of the Edomites (Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:13). Truth to tell, the Edomites were not easy to love. They had obstructed Israel’s path from Egypt during the days of Moses (Numbers 20:21). They were known to be without pity (Amos 1:11) and engaged in international slave trade (1:6,9). For Ezekiel, as for Obadiah, however, the major sin was their attempt to exploit Babylon’s destruction of Judah.

Psalms 49 (Greek & Latin 48): This psalm calls upon the human mind, any human mind, to think deeply about certain universal facts and phenomena of human life. The poet invites all mankind to meditate with him on a specific but universal problem. He is also going to take his time with the matter, for this is a deep and enigmatic concern, not a subject to be hurried. No fewer than four times the psalmist declares what he is about to do: (1) “My mouth shall speak wisdom; [2] and the concern of my heart, understanding. [3] I will bend my ear to a puzzle; [4] I shall broach my riddle in a ballad.”

Now the thing that most strikes the psalmist about human existence is that it ends in death, and he is a fool who forgets or neglects this truth. Human beings tend to take too seriously the wealth and other sorts of honor that this world gives, for death will make it all come to nothing. This ill-placed confidence is no basis for a wise life. Halfway through and again at the end, our psalm comes back to a refrain on this theme: “Abiding in honor, man has failed to understand. He has come to resemble the witless beasts, and to be compared with them.”

Graves tending to be dug to roughly the same depth, death has been called the great leveler. Rich and poor, great and small, suffer an identical fate. Cemeteries are very democratic places, so this psalm is addressed to “wealthy and poor alike.”

The psalmist is particularly struck by the irony that some individuals become so powerful and famous that regions of the world are called by their names. Whatever claim these folk make upon the earth, he says, the earth will eventually make its own claim on them: “Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places from generation to generation.”

Worldly power takes itself very seriously and throws its weight around, but no amount of prestige or riches can save a man from his appointed fate. So God’s servant does not fear what such people may do to him. In contrast to the wealthy presumptuous man who “cannot redeem his soul,” he sings out: “God will redeem my soul from the hand of Hades, when He receives me.” This latter verb is the same used for God’s “receiving” such just men as Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kin. 2:9–11).

Saturday, May 22

John 9,1-12: Whenever the Gospel of St. John says that Jesus “sees” someone, the verb denotes more than the bare act of vision. If John takes the care to
remark that Jesus “sees,” this is invariably a prelude to some transformation;
some work of grace is at hand. Thus does Jesus “see” Nathaniel (John 1:47, 50), the paralytic at the pool (5:6), the weeping Mary of Bethany (11:33), and His two dear ones at the foot of the Cross (19:26).

Thus, too, does St. John introduce the story of the man born blind, for he says that Jesus, “passing by, saw a man blind from birth” (9:1). This is a most important detail. The blind man himself, after all, cannot see Jesus, so Jesus must first see him. This is a story about the primacy of grace, illustrating the truth that it is “not that we loved God, but that He loved us” (1 John 4:10). This story begins, then, with a man that Jesus saw, and it ends with that same man seeing Jesus: “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you” (John 9:37).

Ezekiel 36: As the previous oracle was addressed to Mount Seir in Edom, so this one (verses 1-15) is addressed to the mountains of Israel. It condemns all the nations that have set themselves against God’s people, but special attention is given, once again, to the Edomites (verse 5).

In verse 8 Ezekiel begins a series of several prophecies of the Israelites’ return to their homes. Whereas in Chapter 6 he had infallibly foretold to these same mountains the many sufferings that have since ensued, he now tells them, again infallibly, of the joys that lie ahead.

And why should God perform these mercies, in view of the fact that Israel has deserved all that it has suffered (verses 16-20)? Because of His own gracious election (verses 21-38). God will pour out all these new blessings on His people in order to testify to the gratuity and steadfastness of His choice. God will be faithful, even though Israel has not been faithful.

The most famous lines of this section are in verses 26-28, repetitious of 11:19-20 and reminiscent of Jeremiah 31:31-34. God will restore Israel, not because of the merits of Israel, but to vindicate His covenant fidelity. The gift of cleansing and a new heart is entirely God’s, but it will not be given except in the context of repentance (verse 31).

Sunday, May 22

John 9.13-23: When they first beheld the man born blind, the Lord’s disciples were plagued by a theological problem—namely, whose fault is it ? They phrased this question in a curious and most interesting way: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). Jesus answered immediately, of course, that neither party had sinned, but that was not the last time the identical question appears in this story.

After his healing, both the man and his parents are subpoenaed for interrogation by the Lord’s enemies, who have their own ideas about “who sinned.” They are trying to find some charge they can lay on Jesus himself. After all, the Sabbath has just been violated, and such a violation was a capital offense (Exodus 31.15). Is Jesus the sinner here? Some of the Pharisees insist that he is. Others, however, see contrary evidence—‘If he is a sinner, how do we account for this man’s sudden gift of sight?’

More testimony is needed. ‘Are we really sure that this man was? In search of more evidence, they summon the man’s parents. After declaring that this man was indeed their son and that he had indeed been born blind, the parents have no more to say. They essentially “take the fifth.”

Ezekiel 37: We come now to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, unarguably the best known part of this book. It consists of a Spirit-given experience (verses 1-10), followed by an interpretation (verses 11-14). In its immediate historical sense, the valley of the dry bones represents Israel after Jerusalem’s destruction in 586.

As a prophecy to be fulfilled in the fullness of time, it refers to the resurrection of the dead, of which the principle and first-fruit is the Resurrection of Christ. (Hence it is most appropriate for us to be reading this text on the eve of Ascension Thursday, the feast celebrating the heavenly exaltation of Christ’s risen flesh.)

In this vision the dynamic principle in the resurrection of the dead is the same Spirit who brought the prophet to the valley (verse 1).

The reader should bear in mind that, all through this chapter, there is a single Hebrew word (ruah) translated in different ways (“Spirit,” “breath,” “wind”), simply because no one English word expresses the fullness of its meaning (Cf. also Genesis 1:2).

This section is followed by another prophetic pantomime (verses 15-17), accompanied by an interpretation (verses 18-23), according to which all of God’s people will be rejoined, with the new David to shepherd them (verses 24-28).

Monday, May 23

John 9.24-41: The chief witness is called back to testify, but the jury has already reached a verdict: Jesus is guilty—“We know that this Man is a sinner” (9:24).

Then, when he refuses to agree with them, the man himself is pronounced
guilty: “You were completely born in sins” (9:34). The accusers thus provide their own answer to the question first posed by the disciples: “Who sinned?”

There is a second, deeper blindness in the story, an unrepentance that is the real sin. Thus, at the very end of the account, Jesus gives a further response to the original query, “Who sinned?” To those hard of heart who condemned the man born blind, the Lord asserts, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore, your sin remains” (9:41). This is the story’s final answer to its first question. Thus, the problem of “who sinned” is an interpretive key to the whole narrative.

Ezekiel 38: In the composition of the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 38-39 are especially striking and, at first sight, incongruous. Nonetheless, they form an intentional link between the promises in Chapter 37 and the prophecies of God’s final temple in Chapters 40-48.

Chapters 38-39 describe a terrible invasion from the north, led by a commander of an international army (verses 2-6,15), named Gog. This invasion is not imminent; it will come “in the latter years” (38:8), a reference to the indefinite future (indefinite because only God knows the future) that may be described as the “last times.” Gog represents the final great enemy of God’s people, and his invasion will be the last great attack against God’s kingdom.

The name “Gog” would have surprised none of Ezekiel’s contemporaries, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past and still well known in the sixth century before Christ. The Hebrew name Gog corresponds to the Assyrian Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 648. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and the History of Herodotus. (If Ezekiel were writing today, he might use, for the same purpose, “Bismarck” or “Garibaldi.”) The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like all the other names in this chapter, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references.

Thus understood, Gog and his forces will reappear in Revelation 20. (“Magog,” by the way, appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” In the Book of Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog.) The most important thing to know about Gog is that God’s people do not need to fear him, for his doom has already been determined.

Tuesday, May 24

Ezekiel 39: This continuation of the previous chapter uses the mystic number seven (the inference reached by the addition of the divine number three and the human number four [and if you multiply them, you arrive at the other mystic number, twelve]) to designate the number of years that the burning of the discarded weapons will supply the need for fuel. Seven, too, will be the number of months required to bury all the dead from Gog’s great army.

In this section, verses 11-16, we see Ezekiel’s priestly preoccupation with ritual purity (cf. Numbers 5:2; 19:16; 35:33f). So great will be the battle’s carnage that the beasts and carrion birds will be glutted with the corpses (verses 17-20; cf. Revelation 19:17-21). The chapter ends with a summary of God’s restoration of Israel, which brings this third part of Ezekiel to a close.

Psalms 59 (Greek & Latin 58): This psalm is divided into halves, each of which contains, near its end, the refrain: “You, O God, are my helper.” Each half also speaks of the psalmist’s enemies as a pack of vicious dogs threatening to devour him.

The context of this psalm is that sacred Passion by which we were redeemed, and the psalm’s voice is that of Christ our Lord, the only One who could make the claim of innocence found near the beginning: “For behold, they have stalked my soul, the powerful have assaulted me. Not for any wrongdoing of mine, nor for any sin in me, O Lord. Without wrongdoing have I run, and straight have I kept my course.” Jesus said exactly the same thing to His enemies: “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46).

This innocence of Jesus appears rather frequently in the Book of Psalms, beginning as early as Psalm 7. It is one of the Christological themes shared by the Psalter and the New Testament. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).

Surely sinlessness, blamelessness, and innocence, as such words apply to Jesus, designate far more than a merely moral trait. Let us look again at that last text: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is clearly a passage about the Lord’s atoning death. To say that God made Jesus “to be sin” is a very strong way of saying what John the Baptist had already proclaimed: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). God’s making Jesus “to be sin” means that He was God’s chosen “sin offering,” the sacrificial victim of the atonement. The innocence that Holy Scripture predicates of Jesus has to do with the efficacy of His redemptive suffering and death upon the Cross. His blamelessness, His freedom from blemish, is a quality of that oblation by which we have been delivered from the power of sin.

Those parts of Holy Scripture that speak of the qualities required in the victim slain in a sin offering lay special stress on its being “without blemish” (e.g., Lev. 4:3, 28, 32; 6:6). The oblation must be “clean,” symbolizing the state attained by the removal of sin.

Ultimately, of course, all of those Old Testament sin offerings were but a prefiguring of the truly efficacious sacrifice of the Cross, “for it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). But if the victims of those older, inefficacious sacrifices had to be without blemish, how much more that Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. It was because He was without sin that Jesus could take away our sins. Thus, it was with specific reference to the Passion of Christ (“Christ also suffered for us”) that the Apostle Peter applied to Him a line descriptive of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah: “Who committed no sin, / Nor was deceit found in His mouth.” He then went on to narrate the atoning sacrifice: “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:21–24).

Wednesday, May 5

Ephesians 2.1-10: Paul speaks in this text about death and life: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” You may have noticed this about dead people—they are rather helpless. They can’t even bury themselves. Now “dead” is how Paul describes man apart from God. He is helpless.

In what sense helpless? Man apart from God is helpless in the sense of not being able to do anything permanently significant with his life. No matter what man without God may seem to accomplish, none of it has permanent significance. When history has at least run its course, all the deeds of men will be found wanting. These deeds include every human accomplishment, every scientific endeavor, every cultural achievement, every political or military exploit, absolutely everything that man, by his own standards, thinks to be great and proclaims to be important. None of it will be found significant.

Human history does not justify itself by its own works. God will not be impressed with any of those works. “All flesh is grass,” according to Isaiah, “and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.” And the prophet goes on to spell it out in detail: “Behold, the nations are like a drop in the bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.”

Ezekiel 40: These final nine chapters of Ezekiel contain his visions of the future temple, to which God’s glory will return. These visions also contain regulations by which the worship in the temple will be determined, rules with respect to the various sacrifices and ministries, ordinances about holiness, and all manner of prescription governing the priestly services of the temple.

These final chapters serve as something of a foil or counterpart to the terrible visions of Chapters 8-11, where the prophet, touring the temple under the guidance of a heavenly minister, witnessed the abominations that led to the departure of God’s glory from the holy place. Now, in these final chapters, Ezekiel is once again led by the same heavenly minister to tour the temple and to behold the return of God’s glory.

The temple herein described vastly transcends the new earthly temple that will be constructed by Zerubbabel. Indeed, this description points in prophecy to a greater reality transcending all the expectations of Israel according to the flesh. This temple is “ideal” in the sense of conforming to the heavenly model of the sanctuary seen by Moses in the Book of Exodus, and of which we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Chapter 40 begins on April 28, 573 B.C. Then begins the measuring of the new temple, following the dimensions determined by God Himself. (Following the Greek text, the reader will be spared undue confusion by omitting verse 30, which seems to represent either a later addition or a corruption of the Hebrew text.)

Ascension Thursday, May 26

Acts 1.1-14: Jesus rose from the dead, not in order to return to the earth, but in order to enter “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24). His priesthood is heavenly; indeed, “if he were on earth, he would not be a priest” (8:4). His priestly service, commenced on Calvary, was perfected when, “not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, he entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:12).

The Lord’s Ascension, in short, was essential to the work of the Atonement. According to a theme developed chiefly in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God united us to Himself—made us at-one with Himself—not only by the Son’s assumption of our humanity in the Incarnation, but also by this Son’s bearing our humanity home to the Father. In Christ’s Ascension, God eradicates every vestige of our alienation from Him.

Jesus entered into heaven in order to cleanse and consecrate “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands” (Hebrews 9:11), “the true tabernacle the Lord pitched and not man” (8:2). This hallowing of heaven, which corresponded to the harrowing of hell, was an essential part of the Atonement. Just as the earthly sanctuary was cleansed and consecrated with the blood of sacrificial offerings, so it was necessary that the heavenly sanctuary should be purified “with better sacrifices than these” (9:23).

It is a foundational teaching of Holy Scripture that man has no communion with God, even in heaven, except in and through the blood of the Lamb. His blood is the instrument of the expiation and purification of all things, including “heaven itself” (9:24). For even “the heavens are not pure in His sight” (Job 15:15).

Ezekiel 41: Everything in the temple expresses the principles of mathematics. In the Bible (as in Pythagoras and Plato), numbers are sacred; they are spiritual emanations of God’s creative act, giving form, structure, and significance to the universe. Numbers are the basis of “form,” that internal principle of proportion that causes things to be what they are. And because the knowledge of anything consists in the comprehension of its form, all knowledge involves a mathematical perception, a “measure,” the perception of “limits,” which “define” things.

Even this future temple—a reflection of the heavenly sanctuary seen by Moses on Mount Sinai—now being “visited” in prophetic vision by Ezekiel, is shaped (that is, receives its form) by the principles of measurement. Because the house of God is a house of order, not chaos, it is a house structured according to the eternal principles of proportion.

Step by step, and in reverent silence, the angelic tour guide patiently lays his royal cubit stick to determine the proportions of the sacred space. The unit of measure that he employs is the royal cubit, which in modern measurement is 52.5 centimeters or 20.6692 inches.

When the heavenly minister enters the Holy of Holies to take its measure in verses 3-4, Ezekiel reverently remains outside; when that inner sanctuary has been measured, the angel gives the prophet a brief explanation.

Ezekiel also receives an explanation of the altar in verse 22. The elaborate carvings described in verses 19-26 are early proof that the Jews of that period (and for centuries to come, well into the Christian era), did not interpret the Decalogue as prohibiting works of representative art in places of worship.

Friday, May 27

Ephesians 2.11-18: For Paul the universal reconciliation of all things in Christ 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.

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 “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.”

Ezekiel 42: This chapter of Ezekiel elaborately describes the temple area enclosed by a wall that made “a separation between the holy and the common” (42:20). In Holy Scripture there is a strong sense of sacred space, a consecrated area devoted solely to sacred worship. Indeed, the Greek verb meaning to “divide” (temno) provides the root of our word “temple,” designating a special space set apart or “divided” for sacred worship. (The same verbal root gives us such English words as “time” and “temporal.” Just as space is “divided,” so is time.)

The original type of such space was the area adjacent to the Burning Bush, which Moses could not enter without removing his shoes. (Observe that in Ezekiel 42:14, the priests were required to change their clothing when they entered or left the temple. Secular clothing was inappropriate within the sacred space, and liturgical clothing was inappropriate outside of it.)

When Moses later received the Law, all of Mount Sinai became sacred space, off-limits except to those designated to approach the Divine Presence. In varying gradations, all the space of the temple was consecrated and, therefore, off-limits except to those designated for entrance. Most sacred of all was the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter, nor could even he enter it except on the holiest day of the year (the divided and thereby consecrated “time”), which was the Day of the Atonement.

Here on earth, all consecrations of space are reflections of heaven itself, that tabernacle not made with hands, where our own Forerunner and High Priest has entered once and for all, having obtained eternal redemption for us.