Sunday, November 16
Revelation 7:11-17: Beginning with an "amen" by which they respond to the acclamation of the saints in verse 10, the angels now join their voices in the praise of God (verse 11). In JohnÕs perspective, this vision is simultaneously past, present, and future. Inasmuch as the vision already contains fulfillment, its verbal tense is past. The "great tribulation," moreover, has already started (for it is simultaneous with the "last times"), and therefore the present verbal tense, the ongoing perspective, is likewise proper. But inasmuch as there are still events to come (quickly!), JohnÕs view is also directed toward the future. One of the elders clarifies for the seer the identity of those clad in white robes (6:11; 7:9). They have already passed through the great tribulation, he tells John (verse 14; cf. Daniel 12:1; Mark 13:19), a description suggesting that the great tribulation, at least from their perspective, is already past. Yet, that tribulation itself will not be narrated until 13:7-10. They are called "martyrs," but this designation should be interpreted in a broader theological perspective that regards the call to martyrdom as implicit in the very nature of baptism. Indeed, from earliest times the white robe has been associated with baptism, that rite by which believers are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Christians do not receive their white robes in heaven; on the contrary, they will not even be admitted to heaven unless they are already wearing those white robes (22:14). To wear the white robe means to live "in the blood" (Romans 3:25; 5:9; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:2,19; 1 John 1:7). The true servants of God, moreover, are engaged in His unceasing worship (verse 15; 21:5; 22:5); they thus share already in the life of heaven. In the final two verses of this chapter the verbs return to the future tense, indicating that there still remains an unfulfilled history through which GodÕs servants must pass. The image also shifts from the Lamb to the Shepherd, both images being essential to a complete Christology.
Monday, November 17
2 Chronicles 19: Although the prophet Eliezer devoted a half-verse of criticism against King Jehoshaphat near the end of his life (2 Chronicles 20:37), the Bible is, on the whole, rather positive in its assessment of that king of Judah. An earlier historian of the period summed it up: "And he walked in all the ways of his father Asa. He did not turn aside from them, doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord" (2 Kings 22:43).
Still, it is instructive to examine some unforeseen results of certain practical choices made by Jehoshaphat during the course of his admittedly virtuous life, because those unintended consequences bear witness to the human condition of sinful helplessness, our native inability to accomplish the good we will (cf. Romans 7:15-19). However pure his intentions, it is a fact that some terrible things came to pass by reason of JehoshaphatÕs political decisions. Indeed, they nearly led to the downfall of the house of David.
When he took his place on the throne of Judah in 873, Jehoshaphat resolved that there would be no more fighting with the kingdom of Israel. As much as anyone, he was sick of the strife that had ravaged the Promised Land for half a century, ever since the division of the region into two kingdoms at the death of Solomon in 922. The reign of JehoshaphatÕs own father, Asa, had been particularly bellicose. "Now there was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel all their days," wrote that same historian of the period (1 Kings 15:16,32).
Naturally, so much warfare exacted a heavy toll from Judah, in loss of life, disruption of families, devastated crops, impaired commerce, and swollen taxation, leading to a general weakening of the economy and the social order. None of this fighting, furthermore, had accomplished much. Since the only sane reason for a nation to wage a war is to decide something, hardly any national experience is so disheartening as an indecisive war, and Judah, by this time, was very disheartened.
The ensuing damage to the social edifice was even more severe in the kingdom of Israel, or at least we may infer so from its greater political disquiet. Israel, in addition to fighting with Judah, had been afflicted with civil unrest and dynastic strife. Whereas Jehoshaphat was JudahÕs fourth king after Solomon, Israel had had as many dynasties during that same period (15:25Ñ16:23). Surely, then, Israel too might appreciate some relief from conflict.
Two other recent political changes likewise hinted that the time for peace-making had arrived. First, barely four years before Jehoshaphat became king of Judah, Israel had crowned a new king whose name was Ahab. This new man, Jehoshaphat could see, was chiefly interested in making money by commercial ties with Phoenicia. Indeed, Ahab had married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel and served as a mercantile partner of his father-in-law, Ethbaal of Sidon. Ahab would have no interest in continuing the old fight with Judah
Second, a much larger menace now loomed darkly in the east, where the shadowy Assyrian began to feel the movement of his might. Before long the warring Shalmaneser III (859-824) would start his march to the Great Sea, and if the little nations lying along the path of that trampling march, like Israel and Judah, were to meet his threat, they had better resolve their smaller problems.
Sizing up the entire geopolitical situation, therefore, "Jehoshaphat made peace with the king of Israel" (22:44). In fact, Jehoshaphat went a very significant step further to seal that peace by arranging the marriage of his own son Jehoram, the crown prince, to Princess Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. The two crown houses thus became, as it were, a single family, so that Jehoshaphat could say to Ahab, some years later, "I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses" (22:4).
Hardly could Jehoshaphat have known to what bad consequences his best intentions would lead. Within three years both his son and his sonÕs son would be dead, and Athaliah, now queen, would nearly destroy the house of David (2 Kings 11:1). In fact, until the fall of Jerusalem nearly three centuries later, Judah never saw a darker hour. And all this from one good manÕs untimely decisions. Such is the power of evil in manÕs fallen history.
Tuesday, November 18
Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings, at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as "woes," afflict mankind directly (8:13). The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents reality without the worship of God Ñ the theological term for which is "hell." As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of EgyptÕs eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not the plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly about how long locusts live anyway. Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil. Their king is called "Abaddon," which is the Old TestamentÕs personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means "destruction" (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning "destroyer" (verse 11). It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name "ÕApollo," which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, "to destroy." We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domition, not a man easily outdone, it must be said, in a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.
Wednesday, November 19
Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14). The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for JohnÕs image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people. Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezechiel 38-39. Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, two hundred million (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To gain something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred-thousand. The army that John sees, like the army of locusts summoned by the previous trumpet, comes right out of hell. Both of these invaders, the locusts and the horsemen, are sent to encourage men to repentance, but menÕs hearts, like the heart of Pharaoh, are hardened. The idolatries listed in verse 20 are the root of the other moral evils listed in verse 21. This relationship of idolatry to moral evil is identical to that in Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 5:5-6.
Thursday, November 20
Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll and the two faithful witnesses. In the first of these, John is struck by the angelÕs numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angelÕs body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient IsraelÕs desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angelÕs legs are pillars of fire, also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28). With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that GodÕs secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment. The scroll that the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezechiel (2:9Ñ3:4).
Friday, November 21
Revelation 11:1-10: In our reading of the Book of Revelation thus far we have encountered the Danielic expression, "a time, times, and half a time" (Daniel 12:7). If we substitute the word "year" for "time," the meaning is clear, "three and a half years," or forty-two months, or (following the Hebrew calendar of thirty days per month) twelve-hundred and sixty days. In the Book of Daniel this was the length of time during which the Jerusalem temple was violated by Antiochus Epiphanes IV (Daniel 9:27). Similarly here in Revelation it is the symbolic length of time of severe trial and the apparent triumph of evil (verses 2-3; 12:6; 13:5). JohnÕs contemporaries must also have been struck by the fact that the Roman siege of Jerusalem also lasted three and a half years, from A.D. 67-70. In the present chapter this length of time refers to the persecution of the Christian Church, of which JerusalemÕs temple was a type and foreshadowing. There is found within the Christian Church, however, an inner court, as it were, a deep interior dimension that the forces of evil cannot trample. This inviolability is what is meant by being sealed with the sign of the living God. It asserts that believers are not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more, because there yet remains an inner court that is off-limits to the invader and defiler. This is the inner court of which John is told to take the measure (cf. Ezechiel 40:1-4; Zechariah 2:1-2), a measuring that he will narrate later (21:15-17).
The literary background of JohnÕs vision of the two witnesses is Zechariah 4:1-3,11-14, where the prophet was referring to the anointed ruler Zerubbabel and the anointed priest Jeshua, the two men who preserved the worship in GodÕs house that they rebuilt between 520 and 516. Those two figures represented royalty (for Zerubbabel was a descendent of David) and priesthood (for Jeshua was a descendent of Aaron), which are two essential aspects of the life in Christ (cf. Revelation 1:6; 5:10). "Two" witnesses are required, of course, this being the minimum number required in order "to make the case" (Deuteronomy 19:15). But the two witnesses in this chapter of Revelation are the heirs, not only to Zerubbabel and Jeshua, but also to Moses and Elijah. It was the first of these who inflicted Egypt with plagues, and the second who closed up heaven for three and a half years (cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17). This is JohnÕs way of asserting that the Christian Church, in her royal priesthood, continues also the prophetic war against false gods. She will destroy GodÕs enemies by fire (verse 5), as did Moses (Numbers 16:35) and Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-12). When the monster from the abyss kills these two servants of God (verse 7), the forces of evil seemed to have triumphed (verse 10), but hey will be carried up to heaven, again like Moses (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), because the victorious Lamb has the final word.
Saturday, November 22
Luke 18:35-43: LukeÕs account of the blind man is taken and modified from Mark 10:46-52. The differences between the two texts are slight, though Luke has completely altered the immediate context of Mark (that is, the special request of James and John for the first two places in the kingdom). In Mark the healing of the blind man takes place as Jesus is leaving Jericho, while in Luke it happens as He is entering the city. This literary arrangement in Luke serves the purpose of "setting up" JesusÕ encounter with Zacchaeus, which is found only in Luke. Luke likewise replaces the blind manÕs Semitic address Rabbouni of Mark with the Greek Kyrios, "Lord." He also omits the blind manÕs name, Bartimaeus.
This is the fourth and final miracle recorded by Luke in his travel section. Like the other three (13:10-17; 14:1-6; 17:11-19), it provides a narrative break that relieves what would otherwise be a solid continuation of didactic material. The blind manÕs call to Jesus is an echo of the prayer for mercy by the ten lepers (Luke 17:3).
LukeÕs account also appears in proximity to his narrative of the publican in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14), a story with which it should be compared. Each story is a case of sustained, relentless and repeated petition for mercy. The characters in both stories pray without ceasing by making the same request over and over again. In the teaching of Luke 18 constant, uninterrupted prayer means ceaselessly repeated prayer. Over and over, both men pray "have mercy on me." A combination of the prayers of these two men became the basis for the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner."