Sunday, February 6
The Prophecy of Zephaniah: The Scythians were Eurasian nomads who for centuries roamed the vast grasslands along the Dniepr, the Don, and the Volga. In Assyrian records they are known as the Ashguzai, and in the Bible, which calls them the Ashkenaz, they are descendants of Gomer, in the second generation after Noah (Genesis 10:3; 1 Chronicles 1:6). In ancient Persian their name, as preserved in an inscription of Darius, was corrupted to Skusha, from which was derived the Greek name by which we still call them, Scythians. In Greek mythology, the patriarch of the race was said to be Scythes, the son of Heracles (Herodotus 4.10). Antiquity remembered them as fearsome mounted archers.
In the seventh century before Christ, the Scythians wandered into the notice of history when they passed down through the Caucasian Gates and encroached on the Assyrian Empire. Although this contact was originally hostile, Esarhaddon (681Ý668) made allies of them, giving his daughter in marriage to the Scythian king, Bartatua. The Assyrians hoped to keep the newcomers around for a while, to help against the rising Babylonians and Medes.
The Scythians, however, could do pretty much what they wanted, because the Assyrian Empire was in full decline after Esarhaddon (and would collapse completely in 612). Moreover, these nomads rarely remained long in one place, and sometime between 630 and 625 they determined to go on a raiding expedition down the western half of the Fertile Crescent. They actually had designs on Egypt, according to Herodotus, who left us a record of what ensued: "When they arrived in that part of Syria called Palestine, Psammetichus, the King of Egypt [Psamtek I, 664Ý610], met them with gifts and supplications to advance no further" (1.105). Although thus bought off from invading Egypt, the Scythian hordes menaced much of the Holy Land, destroying the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
Although the Medes, in due course, drove these invaders to the northern frontiers of the Mediterranean and up toward the Black Sea, they remained a threat to the Fertile Crescent for a long time. In the early years of the sixth century, Jeremiah still thought of them as a force to be reckoned with (51:27), and centuries later the Apostle Paul used their name as a synonym for barbarians (Colossians 3:11).
Herodotus says that the Scythian ascendancy in Asia lasted twenty-eight years, but their invasion of the Holy Land probably lasted for a only a few months. Even this brief time, nonetheless, was sufficient to inspire panic among the populace; they had already heard of those terrifying mounted archers whom even the Assyrians preferred not to fight.
One of Israel's prophets took this Scythian invasion as a sign of God's impending wrath. His name was Zephaniah. The Scythian attack came early in the reign of Josiah of Judah (640Ý609), before the Deuteronomic Reform that began in 622. Thus, Zephaniah was a contemporary of Jeremiah (1:1). This dating would also explain Zephaniah's preoccupation with popular religious syncretism, involving the worship of the Phoenician Baal, the Ammonite Milcom, and the Philistine Dagon (1:4Ý5, 9). It was chiefly against this syncretism that Josiah's reform of 622 would be directed (2 Chronicles 34:8Ý33).
The imagery of warfare, of which the Scythians were currently providing a vivid example, prompted Zephaniah to view the judgment of God in terms of a cosmic overthrow, an undoing, as it were, of the work of Creation, especially of days five and six: "'I will utterly consume everything / From the face of the land ['adamah],' / Says the LORD; / 'I will consume man ['adam] and beast; / I will consume the birds of the heavens, / The fish of the sea . . . / I will cut off man ['adam] from the face of the land ['adamah],' / Says the LORD " (Zephaniah 1:2Ý3). Because man (adam) is taken from the very earth (’adamah), this cutting out of the very ground from under human existence is the worst punishment Zephaniah could imagine; man's life is left "up in the air."
Zephaniah arguably gives us the Bible's most detailed picture of the Dies Irae, "the day of the LORD " (1:14Ý16). It will visit all nations, not just local folks like the Philistines (2:4Ý7) and the small nations east of the Jordan (2:8Ý11), but also the Ethiopians at the southwestern edge of the Fertile Crescent (2:12) and the Assyrians at its other end (2:13Ý15). Most of all, warns Zephaniah, it will visit God's holy city, Jerusalem (3:1Ý4). God will cut off all nations (3:6).
For all these dire warnings, Zephaniah must finally be regarded as a prophet of hope, because God is faithful to His promises. After the divine visitation of wrath has passed, God's people are once again summoned to sing the renewal of grace (3:14Ý20). Even as man waited for the divine judgment, he was told, “Be silent in the presence of the Lord GOD” (1:7). And when His wrath is spent, this Lord God promises, “I will gather those who sorrow” (3:18).
Monday, February 7
Matthew 12: 31-37: Strictly speaking there is no “unforgivable” sin, because God’s mercy stands ready to forgive any sin of which we repent. The price for such forgiveness has already been paid on the Cross. The only thing that would make a sin unforgivable would be the refusal to repent of it. Indeed, the real and final difference between Simon Peter and Judas Iscariot is that the one repented of his sin and the other did not.
The whole business of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is, by definition, the sin of which men do not repent. It is total and inveterate blindness of heart, in which men can no longer discern the difference between light and darkness. They have loved the darkness rather than the light, and they have refused to come to the light, lest their sins be revealed. Such appears to be the sin of which the Lord’s enemies are guilty in these texts where we find them plotting His death.
For a pastoral perspective it may be said that those Christians who fear they may have committed “the unforgivable sin” should be take courage from the thought that their very fear is strong evidence that they have not done so. Those who are approaching the unforgivable sin are those who no longer even think about repentance and feel no need for it. Those who have reached this state are no longer concerned about such things. A pastor dealing with a person anxious in this matter should bear in mind that those who seek his counsel in such anxiety certainly have not committed the unforgivable sin. Those guilty of such a sin do not seek counsel from a pastor.
Tuesday, February 8
Matthew 12:38-45: Both examples here, the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia, are Gentiles, those of whom we have just been reading in 12:18-21. They are the very ones of whom it was said< “He will declare justice to the Gentiles,” and “in His name the Gentiles will trust.” These Gentiles first come to Jesus in the persons of the Magi at the beginning of Matthew, and to them will the Apostles be sent by the Great Commission that the Lord gives in the closing verses of this Gospel.
The figures of Jonah and Solomon, both of them “types” of Christ our Lord, should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.
With respect to the first, Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles (not only the Ninevites but also the sailors who repented in Jonah 1:14-16). The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15).
Jesus is the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple. A Gentile woman, who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, foreshadows the calling of the Gentiles. She is contrasted here with the Lord’s enemies, the unbelievers who refuse to recognize that “a greater than Solomon is here.”
Accordingly, the Queen of the South becomes a figure of Mother Church, standing rapturously in the presence of the wiser Solomon. We Christians make our own her praise and proclamation before the throne of Christ: “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the LORD your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (1 Kings 10:8Ý9).
Ash Wednesday, February 9
Proverbs 1: Verses 2-6 are a single sentence that states the intent of the book. It 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 a man learns such things when he is young (verse 4), his wisdom will increase as he grows older (verse 5).
This instruction will be grammatical, rhetorical, and imaginary (verse 6), but its principle is moral (verse 7), and its transmission comes from parental tradition (verses 8-9). Hence, religious docility 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 their nefarious influence. All through this book we see an insistence on this point: Wisdom is to be learned from the past, not from one’s 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, February 10
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 Bible’s 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.” Prophecy is new, so to speak. Wisdom is old.
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 any young woman besides 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 God’s Wisdom is personified as a lady solicitous for man’s 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, February 11
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 man’s 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 wisdom’s 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 it 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.” The man who “does his own thing” should remember that the Greek word for “one’s own thing” is idion, from which are derived such expressions as idiocy.
The wise man 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 man’s 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 wisdom’s 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, February 12
Proverbs 4: The Book of Proverbs does not claim to contain the fullness of Israel’s 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 describe the Law.
Wisdom must become a man’s 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 3:13—4:26; 2 Enoch 30:15) and Christian (Matthew 7:13-14; Colossians 1:12-13; Didache 1.1—6:2; Pseudo-Barnabas 18.1—21:9). Especially stressed is custody of the heart (verse 23; cf. Matthew 12:34; 15:19; 16:23).