Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
The Daily Reflections will be updated weekly.
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Wednesday, November 23
2 Chronicles 36: Whereas 2 Kings (23:31-25:21) devotes 58 verses to narrating the history of Judah after the death of Josiah, the Chronicler needs only a dozen verses to describe the same period (609-587 B.C.). It was a miserable time, easily summarized, and the Chronicler was not disposed to dwell on it.
As we have suggested, Josiah's own motives may have been mixed when he determined to attack the invading army of Pharaoh Neco. The decline of the Assyrian Empire, a process requiring two decades until its fall, had created something of a political vacuum in the western half of the Fertile Crescent. In Judah itself at least one political faction favored the rise of Babylon, and this faction apparently included Josiah himself. The books of 2 Kings and Jeremiah indicate also the emergence of another party that preferred an alliance with Egypt. One side or the other would prevail, because it was becoming evident to everyone that Judah's days of political independence were at an end.
The first part of the present chapter (verses 1-10) illustrates the political struggles in which these competing forces worked themselves out. Josiah at his death was not succeeded by his eldest son Jehoiakim, because a popular uprising, apparently motivated by pro-Babylonian sympathies, gave the crown to another son, Jehoahaz/Eliakim (verse 1). Within three months, however, Pharaoh Neco intervened and took this son hostage into Egypt. To replace him on the throne of Judah he chose Josiah's older son, Jehoiakim, who was perhaps more favorable--and certainly more acceptable--to Egypt (verses 2,4,5). The annual tribute that Judah paid to Egypt made manifest Judah's de facto subjugation (verse 3).
After eleven years, nonetheless, Babylon decided to make its move on the southwest end of the Fertile Crescent, deposing Jerhoiakim and replacing him with his son Jehoiakin (verses 6-9). (In verse 9 read “eighteen” instead of “eight,” following the Greek manuscripts and 2 Kings 24:8). Within three months the Babylonians found the latter choice also unacceptable, so Jehoiakin was likewise deposed and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah (verses 10-11), the youngest son of Josiah. (In verse 10 Zedekiah is called Jehoiakin's “brother,” but this noun is to be understood in the normal biblical sense of “kinsman.” Only rarely does the word “brother” carry in Semitic languages the strict and limited sense that it has in English.)
The Chronicler especially blames this Zedekiah, the last of Judah's kings, for ignoring the sound counsel of Jeremiah, the last of the pre-exilic prophets. Indeed, the entire leadership of the nation is charged here with polluting the Temple (verse 14), apparently with various forms of both idolatry and neglect. This indictment, found only in the Chronicler, touches at the center of his theological interest in history.
In addition, the Chronicler speaks of two pre-exilic spoliations of the vessels of the Temple by the Babylonians (only one of which is mentioned in 2 Kings 23:13). These sacred vessels of the worship thus suffer, as it were, an early captivity in Babylon. (The Book of Ezra will give much attention to their return.)
The Chronicler perceived such defilements of the Temple and its worship, by both the Chosen People and their enemies, to attack the being and identity of Israel. Eviscerating the very reason for Israel's existence, these defilements led inevitably to the downfall of Jerusalem.
The Chronicler indicts the leaders of Judah for their sustained refusal to take seriously the warnings of the messengers whom the Lord who “sent warnings to them . . . , rising up early and sending” (verse 15). This quaint latter expression the Chronicler took straight out of the Book of Jeremiah, where it is common (7:13,25; 25:3,4; 26:5; 29:10; 35:15; 44:4; cf. 11:7; 32:33), though it appears nowhere else in Holy Scripture.
The Chronicler, even as he invokes the prophetic literature against his countrymen, appeals to the Wisdom literature by accusing them of mockery (mal'bim), contempt (bozim) and scoffing (mitta't'im) (verse 16). That is to say, the leaders of Judah have proved themselves to be the consummate “fools,” who not only refuse to receive instruction but treat with malice those who would instruct them. Against such as these, says the Chronicler, there is no remedy.
As our reading of Chronicles would lead us to expect, Jerusalem's fall is described chiefly in terms of the Temple (verses 17,19) and its sacred vessels (verse 18).
Judah's exile in Babylon lasted until 517 B.C. (verse 20), exactly seventy years from Jerusalem's fall in 587. The Chronicler notes that Jeremiah (25:12) prophesied this detail (verse 21). That number, seventy, serves in the Bible as a kind of ironic Sabbath, because during all this period it is a fact that the land lay fallow and no one worked on it.
Because there was no Temple, active priesthood, nor sacrifice during the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, that period held no interest for the Chronicler. He skipped it completely and went straight to the downfall of Babylon and the return of the exiles in the Book of Ezra.
In a later editing the Book of Chronicles was separated from Ezra and Nehemiah, which had originally served as a narrative sequence, and became the final book in the Hebrew Scriptures (split into two at the time of the Greek Septuagint, as we have seen). Hence, this became the last page of the Hebrew Bible. When this editing was done, the opening verses of the Book of Ezra were borrowed and added to the end of Chronicles (verses 22-23), an arrangement that permitted the Sacred Text to end on a positive and optimistic note.
Thursday, November 24
Thanksgiving Day: Although this is a civil holiday, unknown to the history of Christian liturgicl calendars, Thanksgiving Day was originally inspired by Bible-beliving Christians and established with the support of sentiments deeply informed by Christian memory. More than all other people, Christians are under the constant obligation to give thanks.
"To give thanks," let us note, and not "be thankful." Holy Scripture nowhere tells us to "be thankful." It exhorts us, rather, to "give thanks." It is the act that is commanded, not the sentiment. That is to say, we are to give thanks, whether we feel like it or not. The Bible does not tell us, with respect to thanksgiving, to consult our sentiments but our memories.
This latter exercise is called "counting our blessings," and among those blessings, surely, is our ability to count, our capacity for thought and reflection. This faculty is what separates us from all other beings that walk the earth. Even those who fancy that animals can think have never seen an animal "say grace" before it settles down to its meal. Whatever else animals may do, they do not give thanks.
And when we give thanks, as we are told to do--always, everywhere, and in all things--let us truly count the many things we have by reason of God's kindness Let us start, perhaps, with our very life. We do not deserve even to be. God did not owe us an existence. Let us thank him for each of our limbs, remembering that not all human beings have been so blessed. And if we are missing a limb or two, let us give Him thanks for the limbs we have. And if we have no limbs, let us give Him thanks for our minds that are able to count that loss.
Let us give thanks to Him for our various faculties, both of body and soul. Let us bless His name for our parents, our brothers and sisters, all our relatives and the myriad people who enrich our lives. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God for our spouses and our children and our grandchildren. Let us thank Him for our homes and the means to support and sustain them.
Let us thank our Father too for our citizenship in this greatest of all countries, a beacon of hope in a world of cruelty and despair. Let us thank Him for the men and women who are not with their families on this Thanksgiving Day, being occupied in foreign lands for the defense of our nation and the support of its friends and allies. Let us give thanks to HGod on this day when many Americans may neglect to do so.
Above all, let us give thanks to Him for our salvation in the Son that He sent to redeem us from sin and death. Let us thank Him for the means of grace and the hope of glory. In all things, let us give thanks to the Lord our God, for it is meet and right that we should give Him thanks and praise.
Friday, November 25
Revelation 2:8-11: Smyrna, the modern Turkish city of Izmir, was a seaport rivaling and eventually surpassing Ephesus.
The Book of Revelation is our earliest historical witness to the presence of a Christian
church at Smyrna, but it does not indicate when or by whom the place was evangelized. A second century bishop of that church, the martyr Polycarp, one of the most revered men in early Christian history, personally knew the apostle John at one end of his ministry, and, at the other end of his life, was the friend of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul, who lived nearly to the dawn of the third century. Polycarp thus became the very embodiment of primitive Christian tradition, and because of him Smyrna's status among the early churches rivaled that of Ephesus.
At Smyrna there seems to have been considerable conflict between the Christians and the local Jews, who are here referred to as "a synagogue of Satan," not even worthy to be called real Jews (verse 9). Even in the mid-second century the Jews of Smyrna took steps to prevent the Christians from recovering the body of the martyred Polycarp (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 18.1).
The four verses here under consideration indicate that, unlike the situations in Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, in Smyrna the problems faced by the church came largely from without. Thus, unlike the Ephesians (2:5), the believers are Smyrna were not told to repent. John did warn the congregation, nonetheless, that they would soon be
severely tested (verse 10).
How many Christians perished in that testing? It is very difficult to say, but we do know that Polycarp, who was martyred in A.D. 155, was the twelfth name on the list of martyrs at Smyrna (The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1). Those martyrs, in any case, were promised the "crown of life," an athletic image indicating their victory in Christ (Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4). The "second death" in verse 11 refers to eternal damnation (cf. 20:6.14.15; 21:8).
Saturday, November 26
Revelation 2:12-17: Pergamos is now the Turkish city of Bergama, which is about one-tenth the size it was in antiquity; it has had an unbroken history since the fifth century B.C. There is a still a small, poor congregation of Orthodox Christians at Bergama, the direct descendents of that congregation to which was addressed the Book of Revelation. (Christians do not thrive in Turkey, which is one of the most oppressive countries in which Christians have had to survive. At the beginning of the 2th century, one third of Turkey was Christian. Turkish Christians now are numbered in four digits.)
One may also see at Bergama the ruins of a once magnificent church dedicated to St. John by the Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century. Thanks to the excavations begun under the auspices of the Museum of Berlin in 1878, we know quite a bit about that ancient city.
The problems in the church at Pergamos seem to have been largely internal. There was a laxist group, apparently to be identified with the Nicolaitans (verse 15), who advocated sexual immorality and the eating of sacrifices made to idols (verse 14). Those internal problems were compounded, nonetheless, by external pressure in the form of occasional
persecutions, during one of which there perished the martyr Antipas (verse 13), identified by Christian tradition as the first bishop of that city (with an annual feast day on April 11).
So resolute was the opposition to the Gospel in that city that Satan was said to throne there, perhaps a reference to the temple of the god Asculepius, whose symbol was a staff with a coiled serpent. That image, now universally known as the symbol of the healing professions (for Asculepius was the god of healing), would have reminded the early Christians of the serpent in Genesis 3, who will reappear several more times in the Book of Revelation (cf. 12:9 and 20:2, for instance). Pergamos also boasted temples to Zeus and to Roma, the deified personification of the empire. In verse 16 Jesus says that He will come
quickly, a promise repeated six more times in Revelation (3:11; 16:15; 22:7,12,17,20).
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