Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

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Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Monday, July 03, 2006

Labels Don't Count: Bible Comment on Ezekiel 33 with poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, Ezekiel

Daily Readings
Psalm 97 I Samuel 3:1-4:1a Ezekiel 33 John 12

Daily Text: Ezekiel 33

Labels Don’t Count
Ezekiel 33 is complex. It begins with the sentinel theme that we saw in chapter 3. The sentinel is responsible for giving warning. If he does then the people’s response is on their own heads. If he does not, the people die, but the sentinel is held accountable. All very straightforward. And then there is the offer of God to respond to his people according to their own behavior. They evidently, having heard Ezekiel, have fallen into despair. But Ezekiel tells them that the label of ‘righteous’ or ‘sinner’ is accurate only if they live it out. That is, labels don’t count in the end; behavior, the way you live, does. Interesting that in the current day, preachers are back to preaching labels, and by labels I mean sacraments. If you’re baptized you are in like flint regardless of the way you live! Ezekiel and Jesus held out no such illusions.

At the end of the chapter we find two separate pieces: one, concerning survivors of the Fall of Jerusalem still living in the land and two, concerning the exiles in Babylon in proximity to Ezekiel. The survivors have an argument that allows them to claim the conquered land. Abraham was promised it and he was one man; why can’t we being many claim it, they boasted? Because, says the horrified Ezekiel, your lives are despicable, immoral and destined for punishment. The exiles, on the other hand, have had a change of heart. Whereas they had been opposing Ezekiel and his messages, now they are turning out in large numbers to listen to him. With one caveat, they too have their minds on how they can profit from the fall of Jerusalem. They are listening as one would to an entertainer; they are not taking his message to heart and living lives of obedience to the will of God as a consequence. God promises Ezekiel, in an aside, that soon they will know that a prophet resides among them, ”for justice comes—and come it will,” he promises.

In the middle of all of this is a report that Jerusalem has fallen. A survivor makes his way over a period of six months to the community of exiles on the River Chebar, and tells his tale. This commentor believes that the placement of this report is meant to signal a difference in the minds and hearts of the exiles. They move from disbelief, to fear. Then when the report does come and they understand that the prophet’s messages are true and that God is indeed the LORD, they begin listening, but distracted by the import of such news, they have new reasons for not changing their lives! Amazing how inured we can be to having our lives changed.

Ezekiel
John Greenleaf Whittier

1807-1892

They hear Thee not, O God! nor see;
Beneath Thy rod they mock at Thee;
The princes of our ancient line
Lie drunken with Assyrian wine;
The priests around Thy altar speak
The false words which their hearers seek;
And hymns which Chaldea’s wanton maids
Have sung in Dura’s idol-shades
Are with the Levites’ chant ascending,
With Zion’s holiest anthems blending!

On Israel’s bleeding bosom set,
The heathen heel is crushing yet;
The towers upon our holy hill
Echo Chaldean footsteps still.
Our wasted shrines,--who weeps for them?
Who mourneth for Jerusalem?
Who turneth from his gains away?
Whose knee with mine is bowed to pray?
Who, leaving feast and purpling cup,
Takes Zion’s lamentation up?

A sad and thoughtful youth, I went
With Israel’s early banishment;
And where the sullen Chebar crept,
The ritual of my fathers kept.
The water for the trench I drew,
The firstling of the flock I slew,
And, standing at the altar’s side,
I shared the Levites’ lingering pride,
That still amidst her mocking foes,
The smoke of Zion’s offering rose.

In sudden whirlwind, cloud and flame,
The Spirit of the Highest came!
Before mine eyes a vision passed,
A glory terrible and vast;
With dreadful eyes of living things,
And sounding sweep of angel-wings,
With circling light and sapphire throne,
And flame-like form of One thereon,
And voice of that dread Likeness sent
Down from the crystal firmament!

The burden of a prophet’s power
Fell on me in that fearful hour;
From off unutterable woes
The curtain of the future rose;
I saw far down the coming time
The fiery chastisement of crime;
With noise of mingling hosts, and jar
Of falling towers and shouts of war,
I saw the nations rise and fall,
Like fire-gleams on my tent’s white wall.

In dream and trance, I saw the slain
Of Egypt heaped like harvest grain.
I saw the walls of sea-born Tyre
Swept over by the spoiler’s fire;
And heard the low, expiring moan
Of Edom on his rocky throne;
And, woe is me! the wild lament
From Zion’s desolation sent;
And felt within my heart each blow
Which laid her holy places low.

In bonds and sorrow, day by day,
Before the pictured tile I lay;
And there, as in a mirror, saw
The coming of Assyria’s war;
Her swarthy lines of spearmen pass
Like locusts through Bethhoron’s grass;
I saw them draw their stormy hem
Of battle round Jerusalem;
And, listening, heard the Hebrew wail
Blend with the victor-trump of Baal!

Who trembled at my warning word?
Who owned the prophet of the Lord?
How mocked the rude, how scoffed the vile,
How stung the Levites’ smile,
As o’er my spirit, dark and slow,
The shadow crept of Israel’s woe,
As if the angel’s mournful roll
Had left its record on my soul,
And traced in lines of darkness there
The picture of its great despair!

Yet ever at the hour I feel
My lips in prophecy unseal.
Prince, priest and Levite gather near,
And Salem’s daughters haste to hear,
On Chebar’s waste and alien shore,
The harp of Judah swept once more.
They listen, as in Babel’s throng
The Chaldeans to the dancer’s song,
Or wild Sabbeka’s nightly play,
As careless and as vain as they.

***
And thus, O Prophet-bard of old,
Hast thou thy tale of sorrow told!
The same which earth’s unwelcome seers
Have felt in all succeeding years.
Sport of the changeful multitude,
Nor calmly heard nor understood,
Their song has seemed a trick of art,
Their warnings but the actor’s part.
With bonds, and scorn, and evil will,
The world requites its prophets still.

So was it when the Holy One
The garments of the flesh put on!
Men followed where the Highest led
For common gifts of daily bread,
And gross of ear, of vision dim,
Owned not the Godlike power of Him.
Vain as a dreamer’s words to them
His wail above Jerusalem,
And meaningless the watch He kept
Through which His weak disciples slept.

Yet shrink not thou, whoe’er thou art,
For God’s great purpose set apart,
Before whose far-discerning eyes,
The Future as the Present lies!
Beyond a narrow-bounded age
Stretches thy prophet-heritage,
Through Heaven’s vast spaces angel-trod.
And through the eternal years of God!
Thy audience, worlds!—all things to be
The witness of the Truth in thee!
395:429

Collect for the Day
Almighty God, your whole creation declares your glory. May we perceive you in all your works and live in the light of your righteousness, through him who is the light of the world, Jesus Christ our Lord. [476:835:97 Psalm prayer]

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