WEEK 57: LAMENTATIONS 1-5; EZEKIEL 1-6; PSALM 57
LAMENTATIONS, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, is a collection of five liturgical poems, one per chapter, expressing the grief, shock, anger and fear arising from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as well as the Exile, beginning in 586 BC. For centuries it has served the Jewish people in faith and worship, being read each year on Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
Like other laments in the Bible, Lamentations may strike today’s reader as odd for a book of faith, since the grief and anger expressed sound perilously close to blaming and rejecting God. But faith is not to be confused with denial, and ancient Israelites brought the whole self, not just the presentable, respectable self in control, to God. “Let all that is within me bless the Lord,” including grief, confusion and anger. If all the faith we have is faith enough to bring our darkest and most difficult feelings to God, that is faith enough for God to work with, more faith even than keeping up appearances. More often than not, it leads us back to a deeper appreciation of the words of Lamentations 3: 21:
The steadfast love of God never ceases; his mercies never come to an end,
they are renewed every morning.
Great is your faithfulness, O Lord.
“The Lord is my inheritance,” says my soul,
Therefore will I wait for him.
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him.”
There is no safer place in which to find refuge and mercy, than in the embrace of him who is also judge of the nations. “Judgment begins in the household of God,” but so do compassion, mercy and redemption.
EZEKIEL was also from a priestly family (like Jeremiah), but had the distinction of having been a practicing priest, before having been rounded up and deported in the second wave of exile. His prophecy comes to us from the heart of Exile, in Babylon, initially from along the river Chebar (a canal in what is now southern Iraq), where archeology and history tell us that many exiles from the many nations that Babylon conquered. That may have been a contributing factor in Ezekiel’s international outlook and knowledge. Echoes of Psalm 137 ring here:
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
But Ezekiel would sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, because there, contrary to all expectations, “The Glory of the Lord” appeared to him, thus initiating his prophetic ministry. The visual elements of his vision in Chapter 1 express, in terms understandable to the ancient Near Eastern person, great power, presence and victory. You think the Babylonians had chariots? Not once you’ve seen this divine chariot coming in the midst of the storm! You thought the Babylonians were powerful, fierce, astute and swift, with a global reach? The glory of God combines and surpasses the wisdom of humans, the swiftness of the eagle, the strength of the ox, and the ferocity of the lion. Yet, one of God’s conquests will prove to be Israel itself, for its rebelliousness (Chapter 4).
On top of all that, Ezekiel’s vision adds visual symbols of God’s holiness (the wings covering the bodies), omniscience (the eyes in the wheels) and omnipresence (the multi-directionality of the wheels).
The vision of Chapter 1 sets the stage for the remainder of Ezekiel: YHWH God is just as powerful and present to the Exiles in Babylon as to the Israelites in Judah and Jerusalem, indeed even more so, because the remnant still in Zion—Ezekiel was exiled among the first wave deportees in 597—is an obstinate and rebellious, stiff-necked band of idolaters and exploiters, especially according to graphic details given in chapter 8.
In fact, according to the frightening and very important vision of Chapter 10, the glory of the Lord even leaves the temple in Zion to join the exiles to the east, and, by extension, to lead the remnant there. This is an important event in salvation history, for the Glory of God is still present with his exile, pilgrim, people, through Christ, and now through his Holy Spirit.
Chapters 2 and 3 develop the implications of this vision: Ezekiel is to hear and internalize God’s Word (eating the scroll—see Rev. 10: 9-10) and then share it, being responsible only for sharing it, and not for anyone’s response. But oddly enough, as a result of Ezekiel’s second encounter with this vision of God’s glory, Ezekiel is to be bound up, and even mute, until the Word of God comes to him.
PROPHETIC ACTIONS…and object lessons convey the word of God, equally as much as do words. Other prophets, like Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah, were called to act out their messages, as well as speak them. The baptism of John the Baptist was a participatory prophetic action in which fellow Jews acted out the renewal, from square one, of their faith.
Some of Ezekiel’s prophetic object lessons, first encountered in chapters 4 and 5, are particularly shocking not only for their meaning (Judah’s impending destruction and dispersal), but for what they entail, including actions contrary to the law of Moses (cooking over human excrement as fuel; shaving all hair and beard for reasons other than a Nazirite vow).
“AND YOU WILL KNOW THAT I AM THE LORD”…..is a common refrain that we begin encountering in this section of Ezekiel. It addresses the root spiritual cause of Israel’s malady, and ours as well: spiritual attention deficit disorder.
Who is God is precisely what God’s people, then as now, are likely to forget. We may believe in God, but we are constantly in danger of substituting gods after our own image for the God who made us in his image.
Ezekiel’s audience, and the remnant still in Judah, had fallen to worshiping a celestial Santa Claus who did not mind sharing his temple, his altar and his people’s hearts with other gods and idols, who winked at immorality, exploitation, disparity and injustice, and whose priests and prophets were chaplains and cheerleaders for imperialism, militarism, ethnocentrism and unjustly-gotten, extravagantly excessive wealth. Does this (false) God sound familiar?
PSALM 57…..is a personal lament, with uncanny parallels to this week’s readings in Ezekiel. The prophet himself could have prayed, “I am in the midst of lions; I am forced to dwell among ravenous beasts— men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.” So could the pilgrim, exile people among whom he numbered, especially Daniel, who literally was “in the midst of lions.” His prayer arises not in the temple but “among the nations…..amidst the peoples.” (v.9)
The Psalmist sought refuge in God, and found consolation through worship. And he saw the answer to his prayer for relief and vindication in the larger picture of God’s redemptive work in the world. His prayer will be answered in full when God’s glory is “over all the earth.”