December 11 – December 18, 2015

Friday, December 11

Psalms 31 (Greek & Latin 30): The correct sense of this psalm is indicated in verse 5: “Into Your hand I commend my spirit.” This verse, according to Luke 23:46, was the final prayer of our Lord from the Cross, and I take it to indicate the proper “voice” of this whole psalm. It is the prayer of “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2), speaking to His Father in the context of His sufferings and death. This psalm is part of His prayer of faith.

In making this psalm our own, we Christians are subsumed into the voice and prayer of Christ. We partake of His own relationship to the Father. No one, after all, knows the Father except the Son and the one “to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). Our only access to God is through Christ and the mediation of His atoning blood. Our incorporation into Christ is the foundation of all our prayer. Only in Christ do we call God our Father. The only prayer that passes beyond the veil, to His very throne, is prayer saturated with the redeeming blood of Christ. This is the prayer that cries out more eloquently than the blood of Abel.

In this psalm, then, the voice of Christ becomes our own voice: “In You, O Lord, I put my trust, let me never be put to shame. Deliver me in Your righteousness. . . . You have redeemed me, Lord God of truth. . . . But I trust in the Lord. I will be glad and rejoice in Your mercy. . . . But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say ‘You are my God.’ . . . Oh, how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You, which You have prepared for those who trust in You.” The righteousness of God is our salvation in Christ, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness” (Rom. 3:25). Likewise, this trust in God is the source of our sanctification, as in the words of the standard Orthodox prayer: “O God . . . who sanctify those who put their trust in You.”

This committing of our souls to God in loving trust is not just one of the various things we do as Christians; it is the essential feature of our life in Christ: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19).

In this psalm we enter into the sentiments and thoughts of Jesus in His sufferings. We see the Passion “from the inside,” as it were. There is the plot, recorded in the Gospels, to take His life (cf. Mark 3:6; 14:1): “Pull me out of the net that they have secretly laid for me. . . . Fear is on every side; while they take counsel together against me, they scheme to take away my life.” There are the false witnesses rising against Him (cf. Mark 14:55–59): “Let the lying lips be put to silence, which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.” We learn of the flight of His friends and the mockery of His enemies (cf. Mark 14:50; 15:29–32): “I am a reproach among all my enemies, but especially among my neighbors, and am repulsive to my acquaintances; those who see me outside flee from me. I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind.” There is, moreover, that awesome mystery by which God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21), “so the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors’” (Mark 15:28): “For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.”

The reason that the voice of Christ in His Passion must become our own voice is that His Passion itself provides the pattern for our own lives: “But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues” (Matt. 10:17). “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (24:9). We are to be baptized with His baptism; the bitter cup that He drinks we too are to taste in our own souls. The prayer of His Passion becomes our own, because “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).

Throughout this psalm there is also an ongoing changing of tenses, back and forth between past and future. We have been redeemed, but we still pray for our final deliverance. Even as we taste the coming enjoyment of God’s eternal presence, hope’s struggle in this world goes on: “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom. 8:24).

Saturday, December 12

Matthew 24:1-14: There are few parts of the Gospels so problematic as the discourse of Jesus contained in this chapter. The corresponding text in Mark 13, which is clearly the major source for Matthew 24, is the longest private instruction of our Lord recorded in Mark.

In all three Synoptics this eschatological discourse is the link between the public teaching of Jesus, culminating in His repeated conflicts with the Jewish authorities, and the account of His Passion. Indeed, it was Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple (verses 1-2) that provided the accusations brought forth at His trial before the Sanhedrin (26:16), and it was the subject of the jeers that His enemies hurled at Him as He hung on the cross. Moreover, the position occupied by our Lord’s prophecy here indicates the relationship between the death of Jesus and the downfall of Jerusalem. We observe that in both Mark and Matthew this prophecy follows immediately on Jesus’ lament over the holy city.

With respect to Matthew 24 as a whole (as well as Mark 13 and Luke 21), this discourse forms a sort of last testimony of Jesus, in which the Church is provided with a final injunction and moral exhortation. In this respect it is similar to the farewell discourses of Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), Joshua (Joshua 23), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12). That is to say, the present chapter serves the purpose of instructing the Christian Church how to live during the period (literally “eon” in Greek) that will last until the Lord’s second coming.

This conduct will be especially marked by vigilance, so that believers may not be “deceived” (verse 4). They will suffer persecution, Jesus foretells, and He goes on to make two points with respect to this persecution. First, they must not lose heart, and second, it does not mean that the end is near. They must persevere to the end (verse 14).

The original remarks of the Apostles, which prompted this prophecy, were inspired by Herod’s fairly recent renovation of the Temple (cf. John 2:20). According to Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, 15.11.3), “the Temple was constructed of hard, white stones, each of which was about 25 cubits in length, 8 in height, and 12 in depth.” That is to say, the walls of this mountain of marble, towering 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, were 12 cubits, roughly 15 feet, thick! The various buildings of the Temple complex were colonnaded and elaborately adorned. Its surface area covered about one-sixth of the old city. The Roman historian Tacitus described it as “a temple of immense wealth.” (Histories 5.8). It was because of the Temple that Josephus remarked, “he that has not seen Jerusalem in her splendor has never in his life seen a desirable city. He who has not seen the Temple has never in his life seen a glorious edifice.”

This splendid building, said Jesus, would be utterly destroyed (verse 2). In making this prophecy our Lord steps into the path earlier trodden by Jeremiah (7:14; 9:11), who also suffered for making the same prediction.

When the disciples approached Jesus with their question, He was looking across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives (verse 3), an especially appropriate place to discuss the “last things” (cf. Zechariah 14:4). The question posed by the disciples seems to combine the Temple’s destruction with the end of the world. Only Matthew speaks of “the end of the world” here. This expression will, in due course, be the last words in his Gospel (28:20).

Mark specifies that the question was answered to the first four Apostles that had been called.

Sunday, December 13

Matthew 24:15-28: This section of Matthew, about the Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation, is shared with Mark (13:14-20) and Luke (21:20-24). Jesus first alludes to a past event. In going to the remembered past in order to prophesy about the near future, Jesus follows a pattern of historical interpretation common to the Old Testament prophets.

In verse 15 the bdelygma tou eremoseos—literally “the Abomination of Desolation”—is a translation of a Hebrew expression found three times in the prophet Daniel (9:27; 11:31; 12:11; cf. 1 Maccabees 1:54), to refer to the idol erected to Zeus in the Second Temple by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (1 Maccabees 1:54-64). The desecration, which had occurred in 167 B.C, only two centuries earlier, was still a vivid memory to the Jews, who understandably regarded it as a low point in their history and a source of profound shock and outrage. At that time the Temple itself was stripped of its adornments; other pagan altars were erected, and unclean animals were sacrificed upon them (Josephus, Antiquities 12.54). This had been a time of great persecution of the righteous Jews by the unrighteous, not only by pagans but also by fellow Jews.

We observe that Matthew, unlike Mark and Luke, explicitly sends the reader to Daniel in order to explain this reference to the Abomination of Desolation. In Daniel the Hebrew expression for Abomination of Desolation is hashuqqus meshomem, appears to be a parody of the name that refers to Zeus, ba‘al shamayim, “lord of heaven.”

Matthew repeats Mark’s parenthetical note, “let the reader understand.” This exhortation, which clearly comes from the evangelists and not from Jesus, perhaps calls attention to the plan of the Roman emperor Caligula to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in A.D. 40. This proposed desecration of the holy place would have repeated what had occurred two centuries earlier under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This seems to be what both Mark and Matthew had in mind.

Luke (21:20), on the other hand, appears to use this term to describe the Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem in A.D. 70 All of this, and worse, says Jesus, will fall on the Holy City very shortly. For Luke this dominical prophecy was directed to the Jewish Civil War against the Romans, which would climax in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. Josephus, The Jewish Wars 5.10).

This diversity among the gospels should tell us of a certain fluidity of understanding of prophetic discourses of this sort. It should warn us of the exegetical perils of trying to pin down this kind of prophecy with scientific precision. As we see in the present instance, even the infallible gospel writers recognized this fluid quality of eschatological prophecy. The very images of the prophecy render it open to more than one interpretation.

Monday, December 14

Matthew 24:29-35: That coming destruction of Jerusalem, foretold by Jesus, is seen by Matthew to be both a symbol and a first stage, as it were, of the final times of the world (as in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:20), when Jesus will return in glory to judge. The sounding of the trumpet and the dispatching of the gathering angels (verse 31) were standard images of the world’s last judgment (Matthew 13:41,49), and we meet them in the New Testament’s earliest book (First Thessalonians 4:16). The coming judgment of the world will be the theme of the last part of Matthew’s next chapter (25:31-46).

These verses, a very precise prophecy about a specific and definitive event, give the lie to any attempt to make Jesus a calm, benign, harmless teacher of general religious theory. This is a prophecy of His return to earth at the end of time, and the Christian Church has always read it that way.

We may consider first the end of time, indicated by the inability of the astral bodies any longer to govern day and night: “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (verse 29). This is a destruction of the fourth day of Creation: “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth’; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:14-18).

The blotting out of the sun and moon also puts the reader in mind of the ninth plague of Egypt and the terror that accompanied that event.

The sun’s failure to give light was also spoken of in the Book of Isaiah, as characteristic of the Day of the Lord: “For the stars of heaven and their constellations / Will not give their light; / The sun will be darkened in its going forth, / And the moon will not cause its light to shine” (13:10; cf. 24:23; 34:4). Other prophets spoke of covering that would prevent the heavenly bodies from giving their light (Ezekiel 37:2; Joel 2:10; 3:15), but the description here in Matthew seems more cataclysmic. One thinks of Joel 2:31 (“The sun shall be turned into darkness,/ And the moon into blood,/ Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord”) and how it was quoted in the first apostolic sermon (Acts 2:20).

In the Book of Revelation this image is associated with the sixth seal and the wrath of the Lamb (6:12-17).

In Matthew, unlike the Old Testament prophecies, this imagery is connected to the coming of the Son of Man. That is to say, in Matthew the darkening of the astral bodies is not only cosmological but also Christological. It represents not only the destruction of Creation but the end of history. It symbolizes the end of time.

Tuesday, December 15

Amos 4: Amos turns next to idle wives of wealthy Israelites, whom he rather harshly compares to well fed cattle. (These comments arouse a suspicion that Amos was rarely invited to soirees and other get-togethers in these ladies’ homes. There is reason to believe that John the Baptist later had the same experience.)

It is particularly curious that Amos here mentions alcoholism as characteristic of this set. In this respect he sounds fairly contemporary to our own times, when alcoholism and drug addiction are commonly associated with wealthy, indolent women.

Naming the cities where it takes place, Amos next condemns the hypocritical worship of those that live for themselves and use worship in order to salve their dirt consciences (verses 4-5). We know that he preached these sermons at those very shrines (7:10-17), causing consternation among the worshippers. (These latter were also slow to invite Amos to visit their homes after the service.) We know that Isaiah, at about the same time, was making identical remarks about the worshippers further south (Isaiah 1:10-15).

On occasion the Lord has attempted, hitherto, to chasten and instruct His people by sending various trials upon them, all to no avail (verses 6-11). Five times in these verses Amos speaks of the people’s failure to “return.” Each opportunity missed, of course, renders future repentance more unlikely, and Israel is about to run out of further chances. Although God’s mercy has no limits, His patience does.

In considering these afflictions described by Amos, it is instructive to recall that these climatic and environmental conditions rose easily in the mind of a rural man (7:14), who knew by experience the truly precarious state of human survival. A delayed rain, an especially fertile year of locusts or caterpillars, and many a farmer has watched his crop wither or be devoured in an afternoon, destroyed while he stood watching, unable to do anything about it.

Let the prosperous cities of Israel remember, then, the lot of Sodom and the fate of Gomorrah (verse 11), overthrown in an hour and gone forever. Amos here may have an earthquake in mind (cf. 1:1).

In the ministry of Amos, then, the Lord mercifully offers Israel one last chance to repent (verse 12).

Wednesday, December 16

Amos 5: To the prophetic eye of Amos the downfall of Samaria is so imminent that he speaks of it as already accomplished (verses 1-2). The impending devastation will bring about a dramatic decline in population (verse 3).

The next several lines (verses 4-6) are arranged in a chiastic structure:

A–seek Me and live (verse 4)
B–not Bethel (verse 5)
C–not Gilgal
D–not Beersheba
C’–not Gilgal
B’–not Bethel
A’–seek Me and live (verse 6)

Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba were all ancient cultic shrines founded by the Patriarchs (Genesis 21:33; 26:23; 28:10; 46:1-5), at which unfaithful Israel has been accustomed, says the prophet, to “seek” (darash) guidance for individual decisions (cf. Exodus 18:15). However, this seeking has not been a search for God Himself, who is found only through repentance and a “life” of communion with Him.

The poet Amos engages in paronomasia: “Gilgal shall go into exile”–Haggilgal goleh yigleh.

The “house of Joseph” (verses 6,15) is synonymous with the northern tribes, since the two largest of them, Ephraim and Manasseh, are descendents of Joseph (cf. 6:6).

An understanding of verses 10-17 should start with the awareness of the city gate (verses 10,12) as the normal place of adjudication and the administration of justice. Israel is here condemned for its perversion of justice by the oppression of the powerless. The poor and oppressed man knows better than to seek justice in such a court (verse 13).

The final part of this chapter (verses 18-27) is a second “woe” (hoy–verse 18). It contains the Bible’s first instance of the expression “the day of the Lord,” meaning the day of the Lord’s judgment. This is the significance of the expression in the rest of prophetic literature (Hosea, Isaiah, Zephaniah).

Like the other prophets of the eighth century, but most notably Isaiah, Amos condemns empty worship that has become a mere formality (verses 21-23), separated from the social demands of the moral life (verse 24).

Like Hosea (2:16) and Jeremiah (21:1-3), Amos looks back on the period of Israel’s wandering in the desert as the golden age of its worship (verse 25). This fact shows that Amos does not condemn ritual worship in itself, but only the moral perversion thereof.

Thursday, December 17

Amos 6: This short chapter is the prophet’s third “woe,” which foretells destruction and exile for the socially irresponsible, pleasure loving, and self-satisfied rulers of both Israel and Judah (verse 1). If they doubt Amos this point, let them consider the plight of other unjust nations (verse 2).

There is a chronological problem here, inasmuch as all three of these cities were destroyed after the lifetime of Amos (Calneh in 738, Hamath in 720, and Gath in 711), though he speaks of their destruction as something that his listeners can go and inspect for themselves. Since this latter consideration seems to exclude the possibility that Amos is simply speaking of a future event in the past tense (which, as we have seen, he sometimes does), it is likely the case that a later editor of this book may have adjusted verse 2.

The northern tribes—that is, Joseph—yet enjoy their luxurious living (verses 4-6), but not for long (verses 7-8). The prophet’s reference to a feast conducted during “the affliction of Joseph” puts the attentive reader in mind of Genesis 37:23-25—“So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat a meal.”

The people’s exile will be preceded by siege and famine (verses 9-11).

By his rhetorical questions (verse 12) Amos appeals to the people’s sense of what is normal, conceivable, and possible. Horses and oxen need soil, not rock, on which to walk and work. Israel is showing less sense of reason than these dumb beasts.

Revelation 19:1-10: The previous chapter spoke of the destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet, however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe her in Chapter 21.

We begin the chapter with the “Alleluia.” Although our own experience may prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies, here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over the forces of hell.

The word “avenge” at the end of verse 2 reminds us there is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history, for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind when we read of this smoke ascending forever and ever. The worship becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.

By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.

Friday, December 18

Amos 7: Each of the next three chapters contains at least one “vision,” in which Amos perceives various dimensions of his own vocation and the divine judgment to which the Lord has summoned him to bear witness.

The first of these is a vision of locusts, one of man most threatening natural enemies (verses 1-3). In response to the intercessions of the prophet, this plague is canceled.

The second vision is the brush fire, another formidable enemy of man (verses 4-6). Once again the people are spared by God’s mercy at the intercession of Amos.

The third vision is the plumb line (verses 7-9), an instrument designed to determine “uprightness.” This tool is a metaphor for the standard of righteousness that will guide the divine judgment. Whereas the locusts and the brush fire were images of irrational destruction, the plumb line is the symbol of objective, detached assessment. Amos here does not pray. Plumb lines, like all instruments of measure, enjoy a dispassion and objectivity that are without remorse or personal feelings.

It appears that Amos has been sharing these visions with the folks gathered at the shrine Bethel, because now the apostate priest at that shrine complains to King Jeroboam II (786-746) about the prophet’s activities and his message (verses 10-11). This priest also reprimands Amos, telling him to head back south where he came from (verse 12-13). Amos suffers the usual accusation leveled by insecure governments—conspiracy.

By way of response the prophet tells of the rural circumstances and agricultural conditions of his calling (verses 14-15), adding a few choice words about what the accusing priest might expect in the near future (verses 16-17).

Revelation 19:11-21: Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white destrier. The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, “faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.