Sunday, May 16
Ezekiel 33: This chapter has four parts. In the first (33:1-9) the prophet is portrayed as a watchman keeping vigil over a city, responsible for warning the citizens of any impending peril. It is not the concern of the watchman whether or not the citizens pay him any heed; his responsibility is simply to sound the warning. The remaining responsibility belongs to the citizens themselves.
The dominant images in this part are the sword and the trumpet. This theme of warning is what joins the first part to the second (33:10-20). In biblical prophecy there is often an implied hypothesis: "Such-and-such will happen, unless . . ." Many prophetic predictions contain, by implication, a conditional clause: "If . . . then . . ."
In this second part of the chapter Ezekiel repeats much of the message that we saw in Chapter 18; namely, it is not what a man was that is important, but what he becomes. Consequently, neither former good nor former evil will be credited to a man who has changed his ways.
The third part of this chapter (33:21f) takes up the narrative of EzekielŐs life, broken off after Chapter 24 by the insertion of the oracles against the nations (Chapters 25-32). We recall that EzekielŐs wife had died, leaving him struck dumb with grief. At that time the Lord foretold to him that he would recover his speech when a messenger arrived to tell of JerusalemŐs downfall (24:25-27). This third part of Chapter 33 now tells of the arrival of that messenger on January 8, 585, narrating JerusalemŐs fall the previous summer.
The walls of Jerusalem had been breached in July (cf. Jeremiah 39:2; 52:6f), and a month later the temple had been deliberately destroyed (2 Kings 25:8f; Jeremiah 52:12). When this news reaches him, EzekielŐs tongue is loosened, and he is once again ready to be GodŐs spokesman.
Therewith follows the fourth part of this chapter (33:23-33), which blames the desolation of the Holy Land on the sins of its inhabitants. EzekielŐs fellow hostages in Babylon love to hear him for his eloquence, and they come often to listen to him. But it will do them no good, for they refuse to repent. Too late will they learn what they missed.
Monday, May 17
Ezekiel 34: Ezekiel knows that the recent disaster at Jerusalem and its dire consequences, such as the scattering of GodŐs people, was in large measure the fault of those appointed to care for them: the royal house and the government, the priesthood, the teachers. All of these were IsraelŐs shepherds, commissioned by God to tend, govern, and feed the sheep. Not only did they fail to do so, but their relationship to GodŐs people had been grandly self-serving.
Thus, unfed and without guidance, the flock had "been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness." God Himself, however, will come to shepherd them, and He will do so through His Anointed One, the new David, who will inherit the promises made to his ancient forebear (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89 ). This imagery and its promise will in due course be taken up by that new David who, in John 10, describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.
Ezekiel then (34:17-22) criticizes some of the sheep themselves, who exploited and ill-treated one another. God will judge them, not by classes, but as individuals ("sheep by sheep") responsible for their decisions and their behavior. The final section of this chapter (verses 25-30) describes the coming care of the Good Shepherd in terms reminiscent of paradise (compare Psalm 72 ).
Tuesday, May 18
Ezekiel 35: In this chapter we find toward the Edomites, symbolized in Mount Seir, that same spirit of bitter condemnation that inspired the 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. 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.
Wednesday, May 19
Ezekiel 36: As the previous oracle was addressed to Mount Seir in Edom, so this one (36:1-15) is addressed to the mountains of Israel. It condemns all the nations that have set themselves against GodŐs 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 IsraelitesŐ return to their homes. Whereas in Chapter 6 he had infallibly foretold to these same mountains the many sufferings that has 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 (36:16-20)? Because of His own gracious election (36:21-38). 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 GodŐs, but it will not be given except in the context of repentance (verse 31).
Thursday, May 20
Acts 1:1-14: Both LukeŐs Gospel (1:3) and the Book of Acts (1:1) are addressed to a man named Theophilus, whom Luke calls "most excellent [kratistos]." This honorific adjective, which in antiquity a person might use when approaching someone of a higher social class than himself, was deemed especially appropriate for addressing government officials. Indeed, Luke himself provides three examples of this usage: the letter of Lysias to the governor Felix (Acts 23:26), an address to the same man by Tertullus (24:3), and St. PaulŐs speech to the governor Festus (26:25). It is not surprising, then, that many interpreters of Holy Scripture think Theophilus was a Roman political figure. This is an attractive and likely suggestion.
Many of these same biblical interpreters go on to contend that Theophilus was perhaps a sympathetic Roman ruler, but still a pagan, whom Luke was endeavoring to convince of the truth of the Gospel. They argue, in other words, that LukeŐs intent in these two books was largely apologetic, rather like Paul arguing his case before Festus and Agrippa (26:2ř23). These exegetes believe that Luke was thus recommending the merits of the Christian faith to the official Roman world as represented in Theophilus.
One may mention two reasons for believing that this line of interpretation is not very likely. First, though the Book of Acts does contain several apostolic speeches of an apologetic nature, LukeŐs two works on the whole are not marked by the directness and simplicity normally characteristic of an apologetic case. As many of those same biblical interpreters have shown, LukeŐs thought and style are theologically very complex and subtle. He was clearly directing his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles to mature believers already inside the Church.
Second, Theophilus himself was certainly no pagan, because Luke explicitly mentions his having been "catechized" (katechethesŃLuke 1:4). This expression means that Theophilus had already received the normal basic instruction given within the Christian Church (1 Corinthians 14:19; Galatians 6:6). His experience in this respect was doubtless identical to that of Apollos, who also was "catechized" by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:25).
The basic catechesis among Christians was essentially oral, rather than literary. Indeed, this is indicated even by the etymology of the word "catechesis": kata-echo, "by way of echo," an expression suggesting much recourse to repetition. The fundamental teaching in the Church was to have an echo quality, involving a generous amount of "repeat after me." Truly, this is how the Gospel itself is handed on to each new generation of believers: "I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you" (1 Corinthians 11:23). Catechesis is thus no place for innovation and experiment.
Nonetheless, the New Testament also indicates that deeper explorations and more detailed explanations were provided for Christians who had already been catechized in the basics. The Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, clearly distinguishing between these two types of teaching (5:12Ń6:2), says "let us go on to perfection."
Similarly, it was LukeŐs intention to provide Theophilus with a deeper, more detailed, and "perfect understanding" of the doctrines of the faith, "just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us" (Luke 1:2ř3). It was to furnish this further instruction that Luke composed his Gospel and the Book of Acts.
Luke had in mind, of course, that these books would be read by other Christians besides Theophilus, and we would surely be mistaken if we imagined these books as intended for a private library. On the contrary, both works were composed for the very purpose which, in fact, they have always served in the ChurchŃnamely, the public proclamation of GodŐs Word within the ChurchŐs worship. Indeed, both books make pointed references to GodŐs people assembled for worship.
Why, then, is Theophilus himself the person addressed at the beginning of each work? Unless he is to be understood as a purely literary addressee, like the "Malcolm" of C. S. Lewis, the most reasonable explanation is that it was Theophilus who made the production of these books possible. At the very least this means that Theophilus supported Luke while he wrote the Gospel and Acts. All of us, in this case, are very much in his debt.
Friday, May 21
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 GodŐs final temple in Chapters 40-48.
Chapters 38-39 describe a terrible invasion from the north, led by a commander of an international army (38:2-6,15), 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 GodŐs people, and his invasion will be the last great attack against GodŐs kingdom. The name "Gog" would have surprised none of EzekielŐs 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 644. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and History of Herodotus. (If Ezekiel were writing today, he might use, for the same purpose, "Bismarck" or "Garibaldi.")
The name "Gog" 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 GodŐs people do not need to fear him, for his doom has already been determined.
Saturday, May 22
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 GogŐs great army.
In this section, verses 11-16, we see EzekielŐs priestly preoccupation with ritual purity (cf. Numbers 5:2; 19:16; 35:33f). So great will be the battleŐs 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 GodŐs restoration of Israel, which brings this third part of Ezekiel to a close.