Sunday, March 2
Psalm 115 (Greek and Latin 113B): One way of approaching this psalm is through the consideration of space. It speaks of heaven, earth and the nether world, and all of these references are related to the question, posed in an early verse, about where God is to be located: "So where is their God?"
This question, posed by the unbelievers as a mockery ("Why should the Gentiles say"), is answered by the psalmist: "But our God is in heaven." The affirmation here is not merely spatial, so to speak, for he goes on immediately to draw an inference that becomes a theme of the psalm: God "does whatever He pleases." The verb, to "do" or "make" (Ôasah in Hebrew) appears now for the first time and may be seen as a key to the psalmŐs meaning. This psalm is about a God who does things.
Nothing more is said about space until a dozen verses later, when the psalmist speaks of "the Lord, Who made heaven and earth." The word "made" here is Ôoseh, the active participle of the same verb as before and could be translated even as a substantive Ń God is a doer. The Lord does things.
Here, then, is heaven once more, not simply as a spatial reference but a symbol of GodŐs omnipotence. Just as, earlier, "heaven" had to do with GodŐs activity ("He does whatever He pleases"), so now the reference to GodŐs activity leads back immediately to the thought of heaven: "The heaven, even the heavens, are the LordŐs."
In contrast to heaven there is the earth: "But the earth He has given to the children of men." God is in heaven; He is omnipotent. Men dwell on earth; they are not omnipotent. Indeed, they will die and "go down into silence," and this brings us to the psalmŐs final reference to space Ń the nether world, where the "dead do not praise the Lord." The "sons of men" are, in themselves, but creatures of a day. They are unlike God, for there are very strict limits to what they can do. And that was exactly the note on which our psalm began: "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory."
In contrast to God, what can men, on their own, do? They can make idols. In fact, left to themselves, making idols is exactly what they will do. These idols he calls "the work of menŐs hands." That is to say, idolatry is the only thing that the children of men, left to their own devices, can do.
The psalmist relishes meditating on the futility of these idols, "the work of menŐs hands." Using the mystical number 7, a standard biblical symbol of perfection, he lists what these idols cannot do: 1) "They have mouths, but they do not speak;" 2) "Eyes they have, but they do not see;" 3) "They have ears, but they do not hear;" 4) "Noses they have, but they do not smell;" 5) "They have hands, but they do not handle;" 6) "Feet they have, but they do not walk;" and 7) "Nor do they mutter through their throat." Seven, once again, is the number of perfection. Consequently, these idols, "the work of menŐs hands," are perfectly imperfect, and the men who devote their lives to the making of these idols also become nothing.
Monday, March 3
Matthew 19:1-12: His third dominical discourse now finished, Matthew returns to narrative for four chapters. This lengthy narrative once again stresses the authority of Jesus in the face of mounting opposition (thus extending the earlier concern in chapters 8ř10) and contains a final invitation to belief. Matthew 19 contains doctrine on sex, children, and the household, all subjects that get treated together likewise by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22Ń6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). This similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.
Verse 9 is not an exception to the prohibition against divorce; the words "except for sexual immorality" is not a reference to adultery, but to fornication. It means that the Lord is talking here about a true marriage, not an illicit cohabitation. The reference to making oneself a eunuch should be taken, by way of hyperbole, as a reference to consecrated celibacy, which from the beginning has been appreciated as an honored state in the Church.
Tuesday, March 4
Psalm 35 (Greek and Latin 36): This psalm, which begins with the sinnerŐs perverse delight in evil Ń those things traditionally called "the devices and desires of our own hearts" Ń provides the proper sentiments for the Lenten season we begin tomorrow. Man does not simply fall into evil. His perversity is a veritable project of his mind, the object of an intentional strategy. He can be said to lie awake at night figuring out new ways to work evil: "He devises wickedness on his bed."
Using seven expressions, the biblical number of totality, this psalm describes fallen man: 1) "There is no fear of God before his eyes;" 2)"He deceives himself;" 3) "The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit;" 4) "He has ceased to be wise and to do good;" 5) "He devises wickedness on his bed;" 6) "He sets himself on a way that is not good;" 7) "He does not abhor evil."
The Apostle Paul quotes this psalm in Romans 3:18: "There is no fear of God before their eyes." In the context of Romans 3 Saint Paul is saying that this rebelliousness is part of each of us; no one is exempt: "For there is no difference; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:22f). This passage stands as a warning to those of us disposed to regard our failings as merely symptoms of weakness. The Apostle is telling us, on the contrary, that human sinfulness is more profoundly rooted in the substance of our moral composition. More deeply than it is comfortable to think, we are all rebels against God. The contrast in Romans 3 is not between human evil and human goodness, but between human evil and divine mercy.
The biblical view of sin includes, then, not just human weakness, but human rebellion. The one here called the "lawless man" is in revolt against God. He has willfully "deceived" himself that his "lawlessness will not be found out and hated." This free agent has declared his moral independence. The source of the problem is what the inveterate, unrepentant sinner does not have: the fear of God. The fear of the Lord, which a later psalm calls "the beginning of wisdom," is not part of manŐs natural composition.
The reason this is so is manŐs fallen state. Adam and Eve were created immortal, but we, because of their fall, are not created immortal. Our innate determination to death, "the last enemy," places the disposition to sin within our very frames. Earlier than the earliest sins we ever committed, we were already sinners. Indeed, we are sinners by nature before we are sinners by our sins; we are sinners by nature because ours is a fallen nature. Traditional Christian hamartiology, therefore, distinguishes between the sins (delicta, peccata) that we individually commit and that general sinfulness (iniquitas, iniustitia) which is part of all of us. This sinfulness, says Ambrose of Milan, is the root of our sins Ń radix est iniquitas (Apology for David 49) Ń and he goes on to speak of the iniquitas operatrix culpae Ń "the iniquity that causes the failing" (Ibid. 62). (Indeed, this distinction between sins and sinfulness is found repeatedly throughout AmbroseŐs little book on David [cf. 45,56,63], particularly when he comments on 1 Peter 4:8 [cf. 24,25,49,50].)
When we pray the present psalm there is no need to go outside of our own souls to discover the identity of the "lawless man," before whose eyes "there is no fear of God." That lawlessness is our own recalcitrance to GodŐs infinite mercy and the righteousness of His judgments. This is why we need Ash Wednesday tomorrow.
Wednesday, March 5
Proverbs 1: Although the entire book is ascribed to Solomon (verse1), this ascription should not be understood in a sense that precludes other sources. These latter are of two sorts. First, the more ancient wisdom of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. These older sapiential traditions both formed the general ambience of SolomonŐs work and contributed some of the specific contents of that work. Second, later increments to the Solomonic heritage contributed during the long period of IsraelŐs scribal transmission of the Sacred Text.
Indeed, only two sections of this book (10:1Ń22:16 and 25:1Ń29:7) are directed attributed to Solomon, and even the second of these was received through the eighth century scribes that worked for King Hezechiah.
Some historians speculate that additions were still being made to the Book of Proverbs as late as the fifth century before Christ. In view of what we know of IsraelŐs canonical tradition, this speculation does not seem unlikely. In that tradition it appears that the Torah was the first section of the Hebrew Scriptures to reach its full canonical form. Second, and later, came the full canonical form of the Prophets. Third and last came that general section of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Writings, or Ketubim. Although some of the writings in this section appear to be very old, in general this was the section of Old Testament to reach its full canonical form after the other sections had done so.
(This explains the anomaly that the prophet Daniel is not found among the Hebrew prophetic books. It was simply written too late, after the prophetic section of the Old Testament had been closed off in its full canonical shape. Consequently, Daniel had to be placed in the third and final section of the Hebrew Scriptures.)
The Book of Proverbs is found among the Writings. Consequently, it is reasonable to suppose that parts of it were still be added rather late in IsraelŐs history, well after the Exile. Indeed, IsraelŐs wise men became her chief teachers during that later period, just as Moses and the Prophets had been IsraelŐs chief teachers during the earlier periods. It was these wise men who were responsible for the final editing of the Book of Proverbs.
Verses 2-6 are a single sentence that states the intent of the book. Proverbs is an educational work, designed to lay down certain insights of prudence, or practical wisdom, in the form of short, pithy sayings, or "proverbs" (mishlim). The wisdom (hokma) conveyed in these sayings has to do with practical moral assessments that a man must make for a godly, just, and productive life (verse 2). This teaching, therefore, pertains to discipline (musar), or self-mastery, as well as the ability to make moral distinctions based on discernment (bina).
Therefore, the wise person (verse 3) will be cautious in the conducting of his life (hashkel), acquainted with the requirements of righteous living (sedeq), able to make sound judgments (mishpat), and do what is honest (mesharim). If someone learns such things when he is young (verse 4), his wisdom will increase as he grows older (verse 5; cf. 4:18).
This instruction will be grammatical, rhetorical, and imaginary (verse 6), but its principle is moral (verse 7), and its transmission come from parental tradition (verses 8-9). Hence, religious docility to traditon is absolutely required for its attainment.
One of the first things to be acquired in the pursuit of wisdom is the courage to resist peer pressure (verses 10-19). The clear presumption here is that a young man is surrounded by other young men equally ignorant, and, left to their own devices, they will simply pool their ignorance for some common venture ill conceived. Therefore, the young man is first of all warned against the nefarious influence of his possible companions. All through this book we see an insistence on this point: Wisdom is to be learned from the past, not from oneŐs contemporaries.
The first chapter closes with the first discourse of Wisdom (verses 20-33), an expression formulated by the feminine plural (hokmoth), designating an abstraction. This is Wisdom as it comes from the mind of God (cf. also Proverbs 8; Sirach 1 & 8; Wisdom of Solomon 6-9). The Christology of the New Testament will show this personification to be, in fact, a Person (Luke 11:31; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20). It is Wisdom that pours forth the Spirit (verse 23; cf. John 7:37-39).
Thursday, March 6
Proverbs 2: This chapter is a poem of six stanzas on the blessings of wisdom. It begins by enumerating the conditions necessary for attaining wisdom (verses 1-5).
We start to observe here (verse 1) a difference of tone or voice in Proverbs, if compared with the BibleŐs prophetic literature. In the prophets the voice is vertical, so to speak; it comes "from above": "Thus says the Lord!" In Proverbs, on the other hand, the voice is horizontal; it comes "from the past": "Listen, my son."
Wisdom is a gift of God, first of all (verse 6). It is religious before it is practical (verse 5), and it has to do with holiness (verse 8), which is the source of understanding (verse 9). Real wisdom abides in the heart (verse 10; cf. 4:23). Once again the young man is warned against bad companions (verses 12-15).
But now, for the first time, the young man is also warned against a certain sort of woman as well (verses 16-19). In context she is young woman beside his wife, and he is told to avoid her. If she approaches him, she is up to no good, and he should eschew her as something lethal. Just as GodŐs Wisdom is personified as a lady solicitous for manŐs wellbeing (1:20-23), so folly will be personified, in due course, as a loose woman who will bring a man to destruction. It is thematic in the Book of Proverbs that wisdom is not attained without the strenuous discipline of the sexual passion, of which the proper expression is found only in marriage. (The monogamous ideal portrayed in the Book of Proverbs is very strong evidence of some authorial hand other than that of Solomon!)
Friday, March 7
Proverbs 3: Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:7; Psalms 111 :10), something must be said rather early about a manŐs relationship to God (verses 1-12). Because the Book of Proverbs has often been regarded as (and criticized for being) a work of selfish interest, motivated by secular concerns, it is important that we stress this matter of the fear of the Lord as wisdomŐs beginning. This fear of the Lord is crucial, in fact, to the entire enterprise envisaged in Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord is that quality of mind and soul called reverence, and in biblical thought wisdom is inseparable from the cultivation of reverence. The wise man of the Bible is not an arrogant, self-made man who lives by his own lights (verse 5). The wise man is most emphatically NOT the man who "marches to the beat of a different drummer." He does not make up the rules as he goes along and as they suit him. The wise man lives, rather, in the sight of God at all times, holding his conscience as open as possible to the divine gaze. He trusts in God with all his heart (verses 6-7,26).
This attitude of reverence determines two other things. First, it is the basis of the wise manŐs stewardship over the resources that God puts into his hand (verses 9-10). Second, it directs the way a wise man meets the trials of life, namely, for his own correction and refinement of character (verses 11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6). The sufferings of life, for the man keen in the pursuit of wisdom, are pedagogical.
The second section of this chapter (verses 13-35) is part of a longer meditation (through 4:9) about the merits of wisdom. These merits are considered in detail, lest the young man become discouraged by the recent mention of suffering and trial.
In this description of wisdomŐs merits, wisdom is again personified as "Wisdom" and this time more closely associated with God Himself (verses 18-20). The teaching, however, still seems more moral than metaphysical. That is to say, the abiding interest in these verses is not the structure of the universe, but the kind of behavior that places a man in accord with the structure of the universe. Nonetheless, these verses do anticipate the metaphysical considerations that will be presented in 8:27-31.
The trust in God described in verses 23-24 puts one in mind of Psalms 91 (90):1-13, which for many centuries has been the daily evening prayer of Western Christians and the daily noontime prayer of Christians in the East.
>From his relationship to God, the wise man goes on to consider his social duties to his fellows (verses 27-30; cf. 11:24-26; 14:21,31; 21:13). Above all, the wise man must not be shaken in his resolve when he beholds the prosperity of the wicked (verses 31-35). Even the admission that the wicked may prosper in this world goes strongly against the philosophical current of the Book of Proverbs and touches, however lightly, the moral dilemma faced squarely in the Book of Job.
Saturday, March 8
Proverbs 4: The Book of Proverbs does not claim to contain the fullness of IsraelŐs wisdom tradition. It only serves as a guide, rather, and a bulwark of that tradition, the larger body of wisdom being contained and transmitted chiefly through oral delivery (verses 1-9). Consequently the Book of Proverbs is constantly indicating a larger historical context beyond its own text. (In this respect, Proverbs resembles the New Testament, another literary collection that presupposes and addresses a larger social and doctrinal context. Though that context is always present in the New Testament, it is sometimes referred to explicitly, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; 15:1.)
The chief thing that a man must teach his son is the Torah (verse 2; Deuteronomy 6:7). Indeed, throughout this chapter we note that the wise man speaks of Wisdom in much the same terms that Deuteronomy uses to described the Law.
Wisdom must become a manŐs bride (verses 7-13; cf. Sirach 14:20-27; 51:13-22; Wisdom of Solomon 8:2).
The theme of the "two ways" (verses 10-27) is common in our inherited pedagogy, both Jewish (Deuteronomy 30:15; Jeremiah 21:8; Sirach 15:7; the Qumran Manual of Discipline 3:13Ń4:26; 2 Enoch 30:15) and Christian (Matthew 7:13-14; Colossians 1:12-13; Didache 1.1Ń6:2; Pseudo-Barnabas 18.Ń21:9). Especially stressed is custody of the heart (verse 23; cf. Matthew 12:34; 15:19; 16:23).