Lament the Fall of Leaders (Even Bad Ones)

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 19.1
“Take up a lament concerning the princes of Israel…”

Ezekiel 18.31-32
Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

Reflection: Lament the Fall of Leaders (Even Bad Ones)
By John Tillman

God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone. Neither should his followers.

Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah sang songs of lament and loss to people who wished to sing songs of war and triumph. When people want war and triumph at any cost, telling the truth is seen as weakness, or worse, as treason.

Their relationship to those in power, including the kings in Jerusalem, was tenuous. Your life will always be in danger when you aren’t telling the powerful what they want to hear.

But despite their words of judgment to the kings and rulers of Judah and Israel, both men deeply loved their country, their kings, and the people. In this section, Ezekiel takes up a lament for the “princes of Israel.” 

The first of the two lions is most likely Jehoahaz, who was carried off in chains to Egypt by Pharaoh. The second is either Jehoiachin or Zedekiah, both of whom ended their lives in captivity in exile.

Part of what we learn from this lament is to not be like these young leaders who became abusive and prideful. Scripture tells us they “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and Ezekiel describes them as “man eaters.” Staying humble and using power responsibly is a worthy lesson.

But the surprising lesson is that even wicked kings are worthy of lament when they fall. No matter what we may think of leaders’ foolish decisions or reckless waste, their fall and failure will mean pain and suffering for many. The removal of a bad leader is often like the lancing of a boil or a surgery to remove cancer. There is pain, suffering, mess, scarring, and there is often still a chance that the patient will not recover.

Eventually, Jerusalem’s true king would come to her. After many lions, many blood-spillers, many deceivers, many charlatans, her true king would come. He would come as a lamb, not a lion, riding on a lowly donkey, daring the rocks to cry, “Hosanna!” He would come to her Temple with zeal, scattering the trappings of greed in place of prayer.

Whether leaders fall from governmental office, from corporate throne rooms, or from the pulpits of our churches, their fall hurts more people than just themselves. The kingdom suffers.

May we lament fallen leaders, confessing their sins and ours, as we await and serve our true King.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Let my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding, according to your word.
Let my supplication come before you; deliver me, according to your promise. — Psalm 119.169-170

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle
Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 19  (Listen – 2:12)
Psalm 64-65 (Listen – 2:39)

Read more about Seeking Righteousness
What happens to good people when they don’t live under good leaders?

Read more about Praising Christ’s Righteousness
If anything, human institutions magnify the failures of individual leaders. How pitiful a situation we would be in if our salvation relied on human institutions.

Sinless Descendants

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 18.1-3, 29-31
What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: 

         “ ‘The parents eat sour grapes, 
         and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 

3 “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. 4 For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die. 

29 Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust? 

30 “Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! 

Reflection: Sinless Descendants

By John Tillman

Western individualists love when God says he will not punish righteous children for the sins of unrighteous parents but we ignore what is happening around these verses and what they mean.

“The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” (Ezekiel 18.2; Jeremiah 31.29) was a proverb quoted by people complaining that God was treating them unfairly.

They felt they were righteous and should not suffer for their parents’ sins. In the same way, many today deny any connection or responsibility for crimes of previous generations. 

So, what happened to these people attempting to deny the sins “from the past” that they supposedly were innocent of? They died or went into exile for their sins. This shows that although they claimed to be blameless, they were not. God says to them, “Is it not your ways that are unjust.” 

They failed to recognize the connection between their parents’ sins and their own actions.

They weren’t innocent of their parents’ sins because they were perpetuating them. 

Jesus attacked this kind of argument from the Pharisees, who said that they, if they had been alive, would not have killed the prophets. Jesus told them directly that what they said was a lie and that they did share the same sin as the previous generations. That sin came to fruition when they put him to death.

God’s description of the righteous son (Ezekiel 18.14-17) is not a case study of an actual person. Such a son, who rejects the sins of previous generations did not exist in Ezekiel’s time and does not in ours either. This passage is a hypothetical narrative—an example created by God to defend his righteousness.

Jesus is the true sinless son sent by God to enact his righteousness. Jesus is the only sinless son who fully rejected the evil of his earthly fathers before him. He is the sinless son who chose to die not for his own sin but for the sins of all who would call upon him.

Jesus takes the cup of our sour grapes from us, drinking it so that we don’t have to. Today is the day to which Ezekiel and Jeremiah referred, when the cycle of sin can be broken. If we drop our denials, and look to the sinless son, we can be set free from our own sins and the sins of the past.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy, — Psalm 123.1-3

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings

Ezekiel 18  (Listen – 5:26)
Psalm 62-63 (Listen – 2:44)

Read more about Model of an Exile
May we confront and be humbled by difficult truths about our sins.
May we be comforted by Christ who bears our sins.

Read more about Have Mercy
We think of sins as individual actions but that is only one dimension of sin.

The Thriving Tree

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 17.22-24
22 “ ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. 24 All the trees of the forest will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. 
“ ‘I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it.’ ” 

Psalm 60.1-4
1 You have rejected us, God, and burst upon us; 
you have been angry—now restore us! 
2 You have shaken the land and torn it open; 
mend its fractures, for it is quaking. 
3 You have shown your people desperate times; 
you have given us wine that makes us stagger. 
4 But for those who fear you, you have raised a banner 
to be unfurled against the bow. 

Reflection: The Thriving Tree
By John Tillman

Biblical authors don’t always explain their visions and parables. Thankfully, Ezekiel explains his visions of trees and eagles.

Nebuchadnezzar, the first eagle, took king Jehoiachin and others into captivity (2 Kings 24.15) and “planted” Zedekiah under Babylonian control. Pharaoh, the second eagle, is who Zedekiah, the “low vine,” entreats for help rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar. “Will it thrive?,” God asks. (Ezekiel 17.9)

Many kings, humbled and seeking God’s face, received miraculous deliverance from their enemies. This was not one of those times. Zedekiah was the opposite of humble.

Refusing to humble himself under the discipline of God, (2 Chronicles 36.12-13) Zedekiah would not accept a reduction in status. He wanted to be a mighty cedar, not a low vine. He wanted the “good old days” back. 

Zedekiah didn’t make his bad decisions alone. A host of religious leaders and yes-men helped. Self-serving false prophets fed Zedekiah’s ego and pride with lies and predictions of great deliverance and salvation.

It doesn’t take too much conjecture to imagine what Zedekiah might have felt and thought. “I’m a descendant of David! God promised to have one of David’s descendants rule forever on this throne. It just can’t be God’s will for me,…I mean…us, to be humiliated like this!” 

Don’t we often look at scripture and our experiences in the same way? “This can’t be what God wants for me! I won’t stand for this kind of treatment! I deserve better! God will vindicate me in this fight!”

Zedekiah’s selfish desires for salvation and a return to power would not be answered because God had already set in motion his long-term plan to save and empower his people. Part of God’s plan to save them was to purify their hearts through exile and suffering. Part of God’s plan to save them was to enact a second Exodus, calling the faithful of his people back from captivity once again.

But God’s ultimate plan was in the tree, the king, only he could plant. (Ezekiel 17.22-25, Jeremiah 23.5-6)

Zedekiah, the king planted by Nebuchadnezzar would fail. Even Nebuchadnezzar would fail in spectacular fashion. Jesus, the king planted by God upon Zion, is the tree that will thrive, bringing all the birds to his shade.

Our path to salvation and restoration follows the steps of the suffering, crucified servant, Jesus. It is only in the shade of Christ’s thriving tree, his cross, that we will thrive.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. — 1 Chronicles 16.33
– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 17  (Listen – 4:26)
Psalm 60-61 (Listen – 2:27)

Read more about Praise in the Midst of Trouble :: A Guided Prayer
Our land, our people, our churches, our politics are fractured, God.
We stagger, shaken, fearful, and unsteady.

Read more about Naked Humility, Unexpected Salvation
Isaiah also shows us the power of accepting suffering as a discipline, while at the same time setting our hope on the future.

Praising Christ’s Righteousness

Scripture Focus: Ezekiel 14.13-14
“Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel, and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Psalm 55.16-18
As for me, I call to God,
and the Lord saves me.
Evening, morning and noon
I cry out in distress,
and he hears my voice.
He rescues me unharmed
from the battle waged against me,
even though many oppose me.

From John: The repeated failure of leader after leader after leader who promised to “save” us from various threats makes this post from two years ago more relevant than ever. Within the repeated failure of leaders both religious and political, perhaps we may find a lesson and a judgment against us for continuing to trust in leaders who deceive us more than the God who wishes to free us.

Reflection: Praising Christ’s Righteousness
By John Tillman

We cannot save ourselves. Praise God.

God specifically tells Ezekiel that not even the greatest, most righteous men he might trust in would be able to save the nation.

God specifies that even great men of the past like Noah or Job could not save the country. Neither could the greatest living leader of the Israelites at that time, Daniel. Not even if all three of these men at once were in Israel, could they save it from its destruction.

Praise God we cannot be saved by the righteousness of humans.

Imagine our difficulty finding one trustworthy enough. Imagine hanging our hopes on a great leader, only to watch him or her fall near the end of the race.

Most of us don’t have to imagine it. It has happened. It has happened on the left and on the right. To secular leaders and to Christians. At personal levels and at the highest levels of governmental and institutional power.

Men and women who have betrayed our trust litter the media landscape. Think back over the past year and their faces and headlines will float up from your memory—comedians, judges, police officers, politicians, pastors, writers, journalists. Human leaders who won our trust, but can’t save us.

And the collective effect of humans working together, doesn’t solve the problem. If anything, human institutions magnify the failures of individual leaders.

How pitiful a situation we would be in if our salvation relied on human institutions. Think of the wide variety of institutions that have failed and continue to fail the people they are meant to help. Banks have failed us. Insurance companies, oil companies, food companies, charities, churches, ministries, and governments have failed us.

Praise God we are free from the delusion that humans and human institutions are infallible.
Praise God that despite the sinfulness of humans and our institutions, we do have a place to put our trust.
Praise God that our salvation does not rely on any person who may turn and betray us or fall into error or sin.
Praise God that we can live in fellowship not because we or “they” are trustworthy, but because we are united in our need for forgiveness and redemption.
Praise God that we can embrace our fellow brothers and sisters with the same mercy that we have been shown.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Morning Psalm
God takes his stand in the council of heaven; he gives judgement in the midst of the gods:
“How long will you judge unjustly, and show favor to the wicked?
Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy;
Rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.
They do not know, neither do they understand; they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
Now I say to you, ‘You are gods, and all of you children of the Most High;
Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.’”
Arise, O God, and rule the earth, for you shall take all nations for your own. — Psalm 82
– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 14  (Listen – 4:09)
Psalm 55 (Listen – 2:43)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ezekiel 15  (Listen – 1:09), Psalm 56-57 (Listen – 3:11)
Ezekiel 16  (Listen – 10:36), Psalm 58-59 (Listen – 3:32)

Read more about Christ—Ruler of Political Leaders
Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. — NT Wright

Read more about Servants in the Age of Showboats
Truthfully, our emperors have no clothes. They think they are rich, but they are poor, blind, and naked.

Responding to Political Violence

Scripture Focus: Psalm 52.1
1 Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero? 
Why do you boast all day long, 
you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? 

Ezekiel 13.10-12

10 “ ‘Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, 11 therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. 12 When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, “Where is the whitewash you covered it with?” 

Reflection: Responding to Political Violence

By John Tillman

Today’s scriptures show us David’s response to violent men like Doeg the Edomite in Psalm 52 and a faithless culture that denies God in Psalm 53.1-2 and they seem particularly relevant.

Political violence, like that committed by Doeg, was still the norm during Jesus’ ministry. The disciples were familiar with political murders and slaughters of innocents that would be shocking in today’s world. 

It is part of our modern vanity that we falsely believe ourselves beyond the violence of previous ages. Despite our sense of moral superiority, we have not advanced beyond violence for political ends.

Our political rancor has reached the point of normalizing violence. In the dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell described ”The Ministry of Peace” which dealt in war. The dystopian “War is Peace” concept has been gradually adopted by all political groups, Christians not excluded. 

It seems more and more Christians are willing to whitewash politically motivated violence as necessary self-defense. We have sunk to the point that political opponents (left and right) cheer their violent allies and point to violent opponents as justification for further violence. Such violent language unfailingly leads to murder in the streets. 

If trends continue, there will soon be an event similar to the Kent State shootings. For Christians to fail to condemn, or worse, to directly endorse this type of violence is a great moral and theological failing.

Ezekiel spoke to whitewashing prophets of his day who glossed over the weakness of “a wall” they claimed would defend the faithful from harm. Ezekiel told his listeners (and tells us) that everything they trusted in more than God would be destroyed and they would watch it fall in horror.

While psalmists and prophets often cheer the wielders of violence, Jesus sets a new standard for us when he calls us to bless and not curse, to turn the other cheek to insults, and to go the extra mile, enduring under oppression. 

We are called to stand up for and support those who are being oppressed to aid them, defend them, and speak out for them.

We are called to endure patiently our own oppression, ensuring that we are suffering for doing good, not for doing evil. 

May we remember that responding to oppression is not about vengeance or self-defense.

Our response must be one of remaining faithful in what we say and do, while patiently suffering the consequences of doing good.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting

Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. — Psalm 90.1-2– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Ezekiel 13  (Listen – 4:14)
Psalm 52-54 (Listen – 3:18)

Read more about Choosing Gentleness Over Violence
The language of many Christians and prominent Christian pastors has followed [the world], growing combative, disrespectful, and even violent.

Read more about Abandoning Human Vengeance
We must be the first to break the chain of retaliatory and violent rhetoric.
We must abandon human vengeance before we can see divine justice.