August 24 – August 31, 2018

Friday, August 24

Second Kings 20: This chapter includes three parts: Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery (verses 1-11), the delegation from Babylon (verses 12-19), and the final assessment of his reign (verses 20-21). It is difficult to date the first two of these components, notwithstanding the specific reference to “fifteen years” in verse 6. Since that same verse seems to presuppose an Assyrian threat, the reader wonders how Hezekiah’s sickness is chronologically related to the events of the previous chapter. None of this is clear.

Isaiah, consulted about the king’s sickness, apodictically foretells his death (verse 1). Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah, like Jonah’s to Nineveh, is unconditional: “you shall die, you shall not recover.” Yet, as the event shows, this prophecy of Isaiah, like that of Jonah, is reversed. Apparently bothered by this paradox, Josephus (Antiquities 10.2.1) omits Isaiah’s first prophecy and narrates only the second, that in verses 5-7).

With respect to Hezekiah’s prayer (verse 3), we observe four things about the king: First, he has walked in God’s presence, like such men as Enoch (Genesis 5:21), Noah (6:9), Abraham and Isaac (48:15), and, of course, David (First Kings 3:6). Second, Hezekiah has walked in “fidelity”—’emeth; that is to say, he has imitated the Lord’s own fidelity. Third, he has walked with his “whole heart”—leb shalem; his internal thought and resolve has had both integrity and proper direction. Fourth, he has done that which is “good”; he has endeavored to follow what God Himself considers to be “good.”

With respect to the medical remedy prescribed by Isaiah, the application of a fig poultice to drain ulcers is mentioned by Pliny (Natural History 22.7) and by two much earlier (second millennium before Christ) Ugaritic texts about veterinary practice.

Since Isaiah has now contradicted his earlier prophecy about Hezekiah’s death, we should probably not be too hard on the king for asking for an ’oth, a confirmatory sign (verses 8-11). We recall identical requests from Gideon and Joshua.

The movement of the sun’s shadow has to do with its progression on a set of stairs adjacent to the royal palace; a person could tell the time by the position of the sun’s shadow moving up the stairs. In the execution of the “sign,” the shadow moves backwards. The king, understandably, finds the phenomenon convincing.

In the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, during this period, the little kingdom of Babylon, still a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, is beginning to test the latter’s strength—finding it increasingly less impressive! Within a century, Babylon will make its move, finally vanquishing Nineveh in 609. In the present text, Hezekiah receives a “friendly” delegation from Babylon, not suspecting its full political significance. Unwisely, he displays signs of his kingdom’s prosperity to the delegation. The Prophet Isaiah, who sees reality far into the future, mentions—“Hear the Word of the Lord!”—the danger incurred by the king’s imprudence (verses 16-18). When sixth century editors put the finishing touches on the Book of Isaiah, they were much impressed with his ability to discern events so far in the future, convinced that they were witnessing, in their own times, the historical developments foretold by him.

Saturday, August 25

Second Kings 21: Manasseh (687-642) and Amon (642-640), the two kings of Judah separating Hezekiah and Josiah, make no positive contribution to the spiritual health of the realm. Their careers are contained in this single and uninspiring chapter.

The infidelities of Manasseh stand in vivid contrast with the religious reforms of his father. In addition to reintroducing Phoenician Baalism—including child sacrifice (verse 6)—Manasseh brings in Assyrian astral worship (verse 5). In addition, fortune telling becomes prevalent.

There was a great deal of violence; Manasseh “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (verse 16). Josephus must have had this text in mind when he wrote that Manasseh “barbarously slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews; nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them, till Jerusalem overflowed with blood” (Antiquities. 10.3.1).

The most notable of the prophets murdered by Manasseh was the great Isaiah. According to an account recorded in the apocryphal story, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, Manasseh caused the prophet to be sawn in two. A passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it mentions this detail, is often thought to refer to the era of Manasseh: “Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword” (11:36–37).

The Bible-reader is stunned by this massive apostasy within a single generation. What can account for so thorough and swift a fall from grace? It is likely that it should be ascribed to several causes, but I suggest that among those causes should be counted a certain erroneous and unwarranted sense of security, nearly tantamount to superstition and magic. When Manasseh was but a child, Jerusalem had been miraculously delivered from Sennacherib’s siege. That deliverance, which had arrived as though out of nowhere, gave rise in many minds to the persuasion that Jerusalem was invincible and would never fall to the enemy. Once saved, Jerusalem would always be saved.

The Chronicler gives more qualified account of Manasseh. According to this source, the king had a conversion in his later years, after the Assyrians took him captive and imprisoned him for a while (Second Chronicles 33:11-17). This account is strengthened by an Assyrian source called The Prism of Esarhaddon. According to this archival document, the new emperor, Esarhaddon (680–669), compelled the kings in the western part of the Assyrian Empire to come to the capital of Assyria to render their obeisance. The Prism names all these kings, among whom was Me-na-si-i Ia-ú-di, Manasseh of Judah.

In 640 Manasseh’s son, Amon, is slain in revolt after a very brief reign.

Sunday, August 25

Second Kings 22: When Josiah was born in 648 BC, the geopolitical prospects of the Kingdom of Judah did not appear too bad, for the Assyrian Empire, which had long oppressed the area, was on the verge of the decline that would bring it down before the century’s end.

From a religious perspective, nonetheless, the situation in Judah was bad indeed. Manasseh (687–642 BC), the very wicked king who was Josiah’s grandfather, had established Canaanite and Assyrian worship in Jerusalem itself, resorting even to the sacrifice of one of his sons, an act for which he was roundly denounced (2 Kings 21:1–15). From an apocryphal work called The Ascension of Isaiah (5:1–14), we know that the atrocities of this depraved king included his causing the Prophet Isaiah to be sawn in half (cf. Hebrews 11:37). Besides the melancholy biblical account of his reign, Manasseh is mentioned several times in Assyrian records, always as a subject king of the Assyrian Empire.

Josiah was six years old when his grandfather died in 642, to be succeeded by the boy’s unpopular father, Amon (2 Kings 21:19–26; Second Chronicles 33:21–25). When the latter was assassinated two years later, little Josiah acceded to the throne at age eight.

We know almost nothing of his early regency period, but Josiah soon became his own man. In 632, near his sixteenth birthday, he experienced a religious conversion, pointing him in a new direction. Four years later, on assuming the full powers of the throne, Josiah began a large-scale reform of the religious life of Judah, an ambitious project now rendered possible by the growing disarray of the Assyrian Empire (Second Chronicles 34:1–17). It was also in that very year that the Lord sent Jerusalem one of the greatest prophets, a young man named Jeremiah.

From a religious point of view, then, things were starting to look better.
Nonetheless, the best was yet to come. Among the features of Josiah’s reform was a thorough purging of the Jerusalem temple to rid it of all vestiges of idolatry. In 622, during the course of this work, the renovators discovered a very ancient manuscript, which historians identify as either the whole or central section of the Book of Deuteronomy. It had been lost for many years. After 622, therefore, Josiah had in hand a very specific text on which to base his continuing reform of Judah’s religious life. Point by point, he and his reformers began to implement the prescriptions of Deuteronomy (2 Chronicles 34:8–33), including the restoration of the Passover (35:1–19). For this reason, historians customarily refer to Josiah’s efforts as the Deuteronomic Reform.

Because several generations of “Deuteronomists” would continue to make that book the basis of Judah’s religious life, the ferment and effects of Josiah’s reform were to outlive the king himself. In the following century, those Deuteronomic scholars would serve as the backbone of Judah’s survival, and even flourishing, during the Babylonian Captivity. During that time of exile, it was under the impulse of Deuteronomic theology that they would edit and unify much of the historical material contained in the Bible.

The royal sponsorship of the Deuteronomic Reform came to an end, however, in the year 609. It happened in this way: As the Prophet
Nahum had foretold, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the
Babylonians in 612, but a good part of the defeated army survived.
Moving north to Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, this remnant continued to hold out for three years, waiting desperately for help expected from Egypt. In 609 Egypt’s new Pharaoh, Neco II, to whom it was obvious that his country’s advantage lay in stopping the rise of the
Neo-Babylonian Empire, determined to go to the aid of those Assyrians.
With some Greek mercenaries, Neco moved up into Palestine, planning to join the Assyrians at Carchemish on the Euphrates. King Josiah of Judah, however, had ideas of his own. Knowing firsthand the evils of Assyria, he decided to throw in his lot with the Babylonians, so he led the army of Judah to meet Neco’s forces at the Megiddo pass. In the ensuing battle, the great Josiah was killed at age thirty-nine (Second Kings 23; Second Chronicles 35).

For Judah his passing was an unmitigated tragedy. The strong, devout Josiah was followed on the throne by a series of quislings, who governed an ever-diminishing nation until Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BC.

Monday, August 27

Job 2:1-26: This chapter switches from prose to poetry, the style that will be maintained until almost the end of the book. Job now breaks the week of silence, beginning his lament, a lament that reminds us more of Jeremiah and some of the Psalms, perhaps, than of Israel’s wisdom literature.

Chapter 3 is, in fact, a prayer that is paralleled in several of the psalms. This chapter is simply a lamentation, much like the biblical book that bears that same name.

Like Elijah pursued by Jezebel, Job is weary of life. Indeed, a more detailed comparison between Elijah and Job is amply warranted by the resemblances between this third chapter and 1 Kings 10. The faith of both men is tried in adversity and discouragement.

Job is also to be compared here to the suffering, afflicted Jeremiah. The present chapter resembles the dereliction recorded in such texts as Jeremiah 15 and 20. Like Jeremiah (20:14–18), Job curses (yeqahlel) the day he was born (cf. also 1 Kings 19:4; Jonah 4:3, 8; Sirach 23:14). Job does not, however, curse God.

Still, Job has become impatient; he is beginning to experience even God as an enemy. Job’s “let there be darkness” (3:4–6) stands in opposition to God’s “let there be light” in Creation (Genesis 1:3). In verses 11–12 Job begins the great question “Why?” that will fill so much of the book. This very question that Job begins to utter, “Why?” is also heard frequently from the lips of the psalmist. It will in due course be given its definitive sanction by Christ our Lord (Mark 15:34).

In 3:20 the “Why?” becomes more intense and less rhetorical. Theodicy’s major problem, how to reconcile innocent suffering with a just, merciful, and almighty God, is now introduced. It is this “Why?” that Job’s three friends will endeavor to answer in the discourses of the following chapters. These friends have their own theories on the matter of evil. None of them really suspects the truth of the matter, namely, that God is permitting Job’s faith to be tempted.

The Book of Job illustrates what we may call the Bible’s “apocalyptic principle,” the rule that asserts that “more is happening than seems to be happening.” Like Abraham in Genesis 22, Job does not realize that his faith is being tested. Indeed, this is an essential aspect of the book’s drama. God knows that Job’s faith is being tried, Satan knows it, and we readers know it. None of the other dramatis personae in this story, however, has a clue about what is really happening, not even Job. Indeed, especially not Job.

This important interpretive key, the apocalyptic principle, appears in various ways in Holy Scripture, from the “deep sleep” that the Lord casts on the sentinels of Saul (1 Samuel 26:12), to Assyria’s being used as the rod of God’s wrath (Isaiah 10:5), to the unwitting prophecy uttered by a blasphemous high priest (John 11:49–51). In all such cases there is more happening than seems to be happening. At the Bible’s end, the apocalyptic principle forms the very substance of the Book of Revelation. The entire Book of Job is built on this same interpretive principle: More is going on than appears to be going on.

Tuesday, August 28

Second Kings 24: The opening verses of this chapter are tied to the closing section of chapter 23, which gave an outline of the reign of King Jehoiakim/Eliakim (609—December 7, 598). He was not a good king (cf. Jeremiah 22).

The Assyrian Empire effectively ended in 609 with the fall of Nineveh to the forces assembled by the Babylonians under Nabopolassar (626-605). His crown prince was a military leader named Nebuchadnezzar, who commanded the Babylonian forces that defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of Carchemish.

On the death of Nabopolassar on August 16, 605 this Nebuchadnezzar assumed the throne and ruled until 562. He is remembered in Holy Scripture chiefly as the villain in the fall of Jerusalem and the ensuing Babylonian Captivity. The accounts of his reign in Daniel picture an unusual display of megalomania.

The two prophets contemporary to Nebuchadnezzar—Jeremiah and Ezekiel—call him “Nebuchadrezzar,” which better reflects his name in Akkadian sources: Nabu-kudurri-usur. Since we are considering him in the Book of Kings, however, we will follow the spelling of this later source.

After his conquest of the Holy Land in 604, Nebuchadnezzar apparently made an annual campaign into the region in order to collect the imposed taxation personally. The present chapter indicates that King Jehoiakim paid this tribute for three years and then rebelled (verse 1). This detail is significant, suggesting that something changed in 601.

This was the case: In 601 Nebuchadnezzar moved against Egypt and was soundly defeated by Pharaoh Neco II (610-594). After this defeat, Nebuchadnezzar left the region and returned to Babylon, where he spent the next eighteen months rebuilding his army. Feeling stronger, Nebuchadnezzar first defeated other states in and around the Fertile Crescent in 599-598, prior to moving against Judah (cf. Jeremiah 49:28-33).

According to the Babylonian Chronicles, Nebuchadnezzar’s army took up siege against Jerusalem on November 28, 598, and the city fell to that army on March 13, 597. During that interval, King Jehoiakim died on December 7, 598. He was succeeded by his 18-year-old son, Jehoiakin, who ruled only until the fall of Jerusalem three months later. When the city fell to the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiakin’s uncle, Zedekiah, king in his place, and Judah was once again subject to the throne in Babylonia.

In the hope that the citizens of Jerusalem would be more compliant to Babylon in the future, Nebuchadnezzar took much of its leadership into captivity at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. This large group included a young priest named Ezekiel.

Wednesday, August 29

Second Kings 25: Jerusalem continued to be rebellious to Babylon. Or, more exactly, it courted favor with Egypt, where the XXVIth Dynasty was still trying to challenge Babylon’s hegemony over the western half of the Fertile Crescent. This was certainly Jeremiah’s reading of the political situation, and he fell into strong official unpopularity by speaking against it. The pharaoh at that time was Apries, or Hophra, 589-570.

Within a decade, Nebuchadnezzar became weary of it all. He once again laid siege to Jerusalem, this time for 19 months. This lengthy siege probably means he needed most of his army to keep the Egyptians at bay (cf. Jeremiah 37:5). The king’s flight from Jerusalem during the famine was the first sign the city was soon to fall. He was captured and forced to witness the execution of his sons before his eyes were put out. Jerusalem fell a month later.

Solomon’s Temple was not destroyed in battle. It was deliberately razed, rather, when the fighting was all over. This destruction came from a cool decision and represented Babylon’s determination that Judah would no longer be even a little power on the earth. The treasures of the Temple were carried away to Babylon, as well, and Judah’s official leaders were duly executed. Over the region Nebuchadnezzar appointed a governor, Gedaliah, who befriended Jeremiah. After the departure of the Babylonian forces, this governor was assassinated by revolutionaries, who abducted Jeremiah to Egypt; these details are related at great length in Jeremiah 40.

The author of Kings, who wrote much later, knew that the fall of Jerusalem was not the real end of the story, even though it marked the end of the period of the kings. This writer knew that Jerusalem was restored in the next generation; he knew also of the fall of Babylon itself in 539. Although these later events lay outside of the scope of the present book, the author of Kings was well aware of them.

It is hardly surprising, then, that he chose to end Kings on a somewhat more positive note. He records that King Jehoiakin, deposed a decade earlier and currently in captivity in Babylon, was liberated from prison and permitted to spend the rest of his life at the Babylonian court, along with other captured kings who owed their very lives to the throne in that court. In that court he finally became somebody. Indeed, when we recall that poor Jehoiakin had reigned, in fact, for a bare three months, there is something distinctly pathetic in learning that, in the latter part of his life, he received “a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon.” Inscribed on clay tablets in the palace at Babylon, the actual figures of Jehoiakin’s regular “allowance” are still preserved, along with other receipts and inventory lists of the time.

Jehoikin’s change in fortune came in 561 as a kind gesture from the new Babylonian Emperor, Evilmerodach, or Awil-Marduk, who was assassinated the next year. Nebuchadnezzar was, in fact, the last of Babylon’s significant kings. Evilmerodach was succeed by Neriglissar (559-556), and he by Nabonidus (555-539). This last attempted a religious reform; favoring the moon god, Sin, over the sun god, Marduk, Nabonidus alienated the populace and especially the priests of Marduk. He fled to Arabia, leaving his son, Belshazzar on the throne to read the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5) and to face the advance of Cyrus and his Persians.

Thursday, August 30

Job 6: Each of us tends to universalize or absolutize his religious experience, and Job believes that this is what Eliphaz has done; he has projected his own experience onto Job. Basing his objections to Job solely on his own limited vision, Eliphaz has failed to appreciate the unique dimensions of Job’s suffering.

Job had expected better of this friend. Eliphaz and the others know him well enough not to take him for the sinner they now imagine him to be. They have interpreted Job’s sufferings as evidence of his sinful state, whereas they should be trying to see his affliction as Job himself sees it. They have not sufficiently weighed his grief, Job says (6:2).

Now Job’s comments will begin to take more direct aim at God. Eliphaz, after all, has set himself up as God’s spokesman, and Job’s response will respect that arrangement. Eliphaz had called God “the Almighty” (Shaddai in 5:17), the divine title that is now taken up by Job himself (6:4, 14). That is to say, the God that Job now addresses is specifically God as identified by Eliphaz.

Job insists that his complaint is no more unreasonable than that of an animal denied its basic sustenance (6:5). He wishes that God would take away his life (6:8–10); he knows that he has not betrayed God and does not deserve this suffering.

We readers, who are familiar with the prologue of the book, are aware that Job is right. Indeed, whereas Job has only the testimony of his own conscience, we readers have the testimony of God Himself, who has already declared Job to be a just man.

Thus, when Job reproaches his friends, we readers stand with him; like dried-up streams, those friends have failed the parched traveler who looked to them with hope (6:14–20). Job has asked so little of them, nothing beyond their simple friendship (6:22–23). Instead of showing compassion for a suffering friend, however, Eliphaz has treated those sufferings of Job chiefly as an occasion to rehearse the religious convictions born of his own limited experience.

Like the friends of Job, many men are too quick to blame, especially when faced with unexplained suffering. Commenting on this chapter, St. John Chrysostom refers to the rash judgment of the citizens of Malta when they saw Paul bitten by the snake in Acts 28:4—“No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” Similarly, the apostles, when they beheld the man born blind, immediately wanted to place the blame on somebody (John 9:2). Thus the self-appointed comforters of Job add the grievous burden of calumny to the already heavy load of his sufferings

Friday, August 31

Job 7: Job does not even bother to answer Eliphaz any further. What we have in this chapter is, rather, a new lament, a kind of soliloquy about the tragedies to which human existence is subject. Job likens them to three particularly miserable kinds of men: an unwilling military conscript who is in constant danger for reasons that do not interest nor concern him, a day laborer forced by his desperate circumstances to earn just enough to stay alive until he goes back to work the next day, and a slave. Human life is both hard and short, that is to say, occasionally relieved by the shadows that give a slight reprieve from the oppressive heat (7:2).

The very transitions between day and night, which in Israel’s traditional wisdom literature provide a sense of stability and structure (cf. Psalms 104[103]:19–23), become in the oppressed mind of Job the source of enervating boredom, anxiety, and apathy (verses 3–4). He experiences already the corruption of death (verse 5). It is a life without hope (verses 6, 16).

Job addresses God, asking only that God will “remember” him (verse 7), for he knows that God regards him (verse 8). To die, however, as Job sees it, is to disappear even from the sight of God (verses 9–10); the finality of death is addressed several times in this book (7:21; 10:21; 14:10, 12, 18–22; 17:13–16). Death represents, for the author of Job, the major preoccupation, and a hopeful quest for a life after death is one of the deepest and most moving aspects of the book (19:25–27).

Job then begins to turn his lament into a prayer (7:11–21). His spiritual dilemma comes from the knowledge that all these terrible things have befallen him, even though throughout his life he has known God as someone who loves him and whom he loves. Has God now become his enemy? Or will God return to search for him once more? And if God does come to look for him, will He arrive too late? Will Job be already dead and gone (verses 8, 21)?

Whereas for Job’s friends his sufferings raise the question of justice, for Job himself those sufferings raise, rather, a question about friendship.

Observe how, in verse 18, Job ironically alters the sense of Psalm 8:5, which asks, “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” Those words—“What is man?”—words that originally referred to man’s grandeur, become, in the mouth of Job, a lament over man’s degradation: “What is man that You should exalt him, that You set Your heart on him, that You should visit him every morning, and test him every moment?” Clearly the religious experience of Job by far transcends that of Eliphaz. Alas, his other friends will not rise even to that level.