October 26 – November 2, 2018

Friday, October 26

James 1:1-11: James, in a series of apparently unsystematic exhortations, begins with patience, prompting the careful reader to recall that St. Paul, too, when he commenced his description of Christian love, began with the succinct thesis, “Love is patient”–Charitas patiens est in the Vulgate. James’ word for “patience,” hypomone–verses 3,4) will later appear when James speaks of the example of Job (5:11). He begins and ends this work, then, on the need of patience in the time of trial (verses 2,12,13,14).

The English reader, as he reads “when you fall into various trials,” may not suspect the skillful play of sounds in James’ original Greek: perasmois peripesete poikilois. In fact, James displays such verbal flourishing right from the start, going from “greetings” (verse 1) to “all joy” (verse 2)–chairein pasa charan.

Nehemiah 13: The dedication of the wall was the occasion for some more reading from the Torah, including the prescription found in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, which excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Israel (verse 1). As long as Nehemiah was on the local scene, such exclusions were taken seriously (verses 2-3). When he left to make a brief visit back to Babylon (verse 6), however, events turned for the worse. On his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah learned all sorts of unpleasant things.

He learned, for instance, that a member of the priestly family had become the son-in-law of his old foe, Sanballat (verse 28). In former days, when Sanballat tried to impede the construction of the wall, Nehemiah had held him off. Now, nonetheless, Sanballat was suddenly inside the walls! What he had been unable to do by force of arms, he managed to accomplish by the simple means of marrying his daughter to a priest! This serious breach in Jerusalem’s spiritual wall once again put at peril Israel’s very existence as a holy nation, a people set apart.

In addition, Nehemiah discovered that the high priest himself had provided lodging within the temple for one of those who had opposed Nehemiah’s very mission (verses 4-5). Other things had gotten out of hand, as well, such as the failure to observe the Sabbath, whether by Jews themselves or by pagans who came to sell their wares in the city (verses 15-22).

Nehemiah set himself to put everything straight again (verses 7-13). The major problem, however, continued to be the disposition of the people to intermarry with non-Jews (verses 23-27), in contravention to the Torah (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Nehemiah found it a very tough job to maintain those walls!

Recalling those great efforts, Nehemiah prayed that God would not forget them, “Remember me, O Lord” became his refrain (verses 14,22,29,30).

Saturday, October 27

Isaiah 1: This is a book about “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), a theme that joins all parts of the work. Indeed, the names “Jerusalem” and “Zion” occur 97 times in the Book of Isaiah, the occurrences spread pretty evenly in all parts of the work.

The national life of Judah has collapsed (verses 6-9). God had made this people His children through the Exodus deliverance and covenant, but who can tell it under the current conditions?

Isaiah’s emphasis on social ethics is of a piece with the preoccupations of other prophetic figures of the eighth century, notably Amos and Micah. Both these prophets, we observe, came from Judah, like Isaiah.

These prophets testify to the prevalent social injustices that afflicted the Holy Land, in the extended aftermath of the Solomonic prosperity. Because of the massive urbanization brought about by Solomon’s economic reforms, many Israelites, north and south, no longer owned land in the eighth century. Their ancestors had uprooted their families to the cities, to take advantage of the boon days of Solomon’s promising mercantile ventures. The tenth century saw the rise of a large urban proletariat.

The swelling of the urban work force, the result of Solomon’s economic policies and the shift of many families from the farms to the cities, inevitably led, in due course, to lower wages, while the control of agricultural production into fewer hands eventually resulted in higher prices through the dynamics of monopoly.

Farms were fewer and larger. Moreover, those farming families with extensive lands, by combining their efforts, were now in a position to control the markets, causing a rise in food prices.

Thus, in the years to come—the ninth and eighth centuries—there developed a considerable economic inequality, the juxtaposition of great wealth with grinding poverty. This situation—precluded in earlier periods by the maintenance of farms and other real estate within the inheritance of individual families—is reflected in the archaeology of the period, which shows the remains of manorial dwelling side-by-side with the hovels of the poor.

This prophetic voice on behalf of the poor remains a necessary and important element in God’s Word to man’s social life, because it is clear that we have poor always among us.

Sunday, October 28

Isaiah 2: This chapter contains three oracles, none of which can be assigned with certainty to a particular date; they do seem to come, however, from early in Isaiah’s ministry.

The first of these oracles (verses 1-5) is concerned with the ideal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem to come—“it shall come to pass in the last days” (verse 2). It speaks of the future glorification of God’s holy city, that more blessed Jerusalem of promise, of which the ancient capital of David was a prefiguration and type (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10).

It will be, says the prophet, a city of peace (verse 4), something that the Jerusalem on earth has never been. Isaiah will describe this Jerusalem at greater length in chapter 4.

Although the literary and historical relationship between the two texts is uncertain, verses 2-4 of this chapter are substantially identical to Micah 4:1-4.

The second oracle (verses 6-9) moves from the ideal Jerusalem to the actual, unfaithful city known to Isaiah. This oracle is critical of the idolatrous pursuit of wealth in the Jerusalem of Isaiah’s time. We remember that his prophetic calling came in the last year of King Uzziah (6:1), whose reign (783-742) had restored a great deal of Judah’s prosperity. This prosperity, Isaiah saw, led to the worship of human achievement as a particularly virulent form of idolatry. It was the sin of pride, and it was Isaiah’s task to threaten its punishment.

This punishment of these evils is the theme of the third oracle (verses 10-22).

Twice in this section, Isaiah uses the expression “the haughtiness of man” (verses 11, 17)). The pride indicated here is something solid. It is more than an attitude of pride; it is something tangible that expresses pride. Isaiah thinks of man’s haughtiness in institutional terms; it takes on economic, political, and military expression.

This pride takes shape in technology. The imagery here recalls the pride that inspired the Tower of Babel: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). In the Judah of his day, Isaiah was witnessing once again the repetition of that ancient pride which led to the division of tongues.

Although Isaiah was speaking within the particular historical context of the mid-eighth century before Christ, we observe that his language was universal—all. Among the biblical prophets, Isaiah was the first to proclaim a universal divine judgment on human history as such. This made him a prophet for the whole world, a vocation that he still fulfills through the Christian Gospel.

Monday, October 29

James 2:1-13: The message of this section is straightforward and unsubtle. James points to a common trait of fallen man, the disposition to cultivate favor with the powerful over the weak, to prefer the approval of the rich to that of the poor. James begins by noting the easiest, most immediate way of distinguishing between the two—their clothing. Because the wealthier man can afford better clothes, he is better able to honor his own body, prompting others to comply with that honor. As modern men sometimes say, “Clothing makes a statement.”

For James, however, who has just mentioned that true religion consists in care for the poor and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (1:27), such deference towards the wealthy is only another form of worldliness. The New King James Version calls this vice “partiality.” The King James’ rendering “respect of persons” comes closer to the sense of the Greek prosopolempsia, literally translated in the Vulgate as personarum acceptatio, “acceptance of persons.” This word means that distinctions are made, according to which some people are treated with greater honor and respect than others.

The thing chiefly to be noted about this prosopolempsia is that God doesn’t have any (Romans 2:11), and neither should the Church. A preference for the wealthy, even with the excuse that the wealthy are in a better position to aid the work of the Church, would seem to be the very antithesis of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unsullied by the world. As such it has no legitimate place in the social life of the Church (verses 2-3).

Indeed, in many places in Holy Scripture it appears that God, if He can be said to have a preference, prefers the poor. He is called the protector of the orphan and the defense of the widow, and even the most casual Bible-reader will observe, from time to time, that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In fact, God “chooses the poor” (exselexsato tous ptochous—verse 5) and makes them heirs of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).

If his readers need any further incentive to be freed from such worldliness, James reminds them that their own oppressors come from the ranks of the rich rather than the poor (verses 6-7; Amos 8:4; Wisdom 2:10). The Christian Church, in short, must side with the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, not with the wealthy, the powerful, and the oppressors.

What, finally, is called for is the love of one’s neighbor as oneself (verse 8; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), for this is the standard by which we shall be judged (verse 12; Matthew 19:17-19).

Tuesday, October 30

Isaiah 4: Here we discern a paralleled reversal of elements in the preceding parts of this book:

In the earlier texts we were presented with the tragedy in which marriage was impossible, because so many men were slain in battle. In that scene, prophesied Isaiah, “seven women shall take hold of one man, saying . . . ‘let us be called by your name, / To take away our reproach.”

Now, in contrast, the prophet speaks of the bridal canopy, , the huppa: “For over all the glory (kavod) there a bridal canopy” (verse 5).

The earlier text spoke of the vulgarity and unseemly dress of Judah’s women: “the daughters of Zion are haughty, / and walk with outstretched necks / and wanton eyes, / walking and mincing as they go.”

This scandalous scene is now replaced by purification, in which “the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion” (verse 4).

Hitherto, the Lord’s judgment has been revealed in punishment: “Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust, / from the terror of the Lord / and the glory of His majesty” (2:10). Now, however, it is revealed in the glory of the holy city, because “the Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night” (verse 5).

The previous chapter described the degenerate leadership of Judah, inasmuch as “children are their oppressors, / and women rule over them” (3:12). Now, however, “the Branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious; / And the fruit of the earth excellent and appealing / for those of Israel who have escaped” (verse 2).

The “Branch of the Lord” is the future Davidic king who will gather the Lord’s elect remnant. He is the fulfillment of the promises made to David. He is portrayed as both human, the fruit of the earth, and divine, as branching forth from the Lord. This is Isaiah’s first explicit prophecy of the Incarnation. Compare Isaiah 11:1—“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, / And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.”

This remnant, preserved and gathered by the Messiah (verses 2-3), has been transformed by the divine purging. Consequently, it is “holy” (verse 3), marked by a quality proper to God. These survivors have been purged by the spirit of judgment and burning (verse 4), a theme later to be taken up in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12).

Wednesday, October 31

James 3:1-12: James begins by warning of the more severe judgment that awaits teachers, who must answer, not only for their own offenses, but also for the conduct of those badly influenced by their teaching. This more severe judgment, warns James, will make a person cautious about becoming a teacher (verse 1; Matthew 5:19; 23:7-8).

This attention to teaching—since teaching involves speech—prompts James to turn his concern to the moral life of the tongue. He had earlier introduced this theme by the exhortation, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (1:19).

Although each of us fails in many ways, says, James, the description “perfect man” may be ascribed to someone who places adequate moral restraint on his tongue (verse 2). In elaborating this theme, of course, James is heir to the Bible’s Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 15:1-4,7,23,26,28; Sirach 5:11—6:1; 28:13-26).

To illustrate his point about the moral control of the tongue, James provides a series of analogies to the tongue—small objects of either great import or capable of potentially massive harm: a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, the small flame that causes a great conflagration (verses 3-6). A seemingly small thing is capable of things vastly greater than itself. So is it with the tongue. By its proper mastery the entire moral life is brought under discipline.

Left unrestrained, however, the tongue is able to create great spiritual harm, inflaming “the course of nature,” becoming thereby “the sum total of evil” (ho kosmos tes adikias). Wild animals, James continues, are easier to tame than the tongue, which is an “uncontrolled evil, full of death-bearing poison” (verses 7-8).

An example of such poison is the curse that the tongue directs to human beings made in God’s likeness, the same tongue that blesses God Himself (verse 9). How can this be? How can good and evil proceed from a common source?

James’ rhetorical style here is subtler than at first it seems. In his explicit pronouncements he appears to despair of a man’s controlling his tongue: “no man can tame the tongue.” This would almost seem to be his thesis. Yet, despair on this point is the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, James’ analogies convey the opposite impression, and it is this impression that he leaves with the reader. After all we do manage to master the horse by means of the bit. We are able to govern ships by means of the rudder, and a flame, while it is yet small, can normally be controlled. Even as his sentences seem to despair of the project, then, James’ metaphors indicate that this moral endeavor is, in fact, quite manageable.

Thursday, November 1
Isaiah 6: Having arranged several of his oracles as a preface, to set the historical and religious context for his call to prophesy (chapters 1-5), the Book of Isaiah now comes to the call itself. In this account the prophet hints at a paradigm for the entire religious reform of his own times, inasmuch as the revelation of God’s “triple” holiness brings him to a sense of his sinfulness and to a repentant obedience to the Lord’s summons.

Two kings are contrasted, the dying Uzziah and “the Lord, high and lifted up.” Corresponding to this contrast, two kinds of people are implied. There are those that place their trust in earthly monarchs, such as Uzziah, who reigned for more than half a century in Judah, or, in context, Tiglath Pileser III, who began his reign over Assyria and most of the Fertile Crescent three years earlier, in 745. In contrast to these worldlings, there are those that place not their trust in men, but in the Lord.

Uzziah was exactly the kind of monarch desired by the worldly. In every way by which the world assesses the success of a king, Uzziah was successful. Isaiah, however, speaks only of his death, and this twice (here and in 14:28). For the prophet the only thing finally significant about Uzziah was that he died. Thus, he represents the dead and decaying order constructed on rebellion against God.

The Lord is “high and lifted up” (here and in 57:15), the same expression that will describe God’s Servant (52:13).

He is manifest in His Temple, the locus of sacrifice, the place where heaven and earth are joined. About Him are the Seraphim, “the fiery ones,” each with six flame-like wings. They cover their eyes, not their ears, for they remain attentive to do God’s bidding. Before Him they cover their feet in humility, as though waiting for Him to dispatch them to do His will (verse 2). Meanwhile they chant to one another, in antiphonal responses, announcing the holiness and glory of God. Holiness is God’s glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God’s holiness revealed.

The revelation of God’s holiness in this vision of His glory causes Isaiah great consternation and fear. It is not simply the disquietude of the creature before the Creator, but the terror of the sinner in the presence of the All Pure. Isaiah now knows himself to be contaminated (verse 5; cf. Job 42:5-6; Luke 5: 8). He is “undone,” reduced to silence, recognizing himself at one with the world of sinners. He is part of a society that has polluted language at its source (cf. Psalms 12 [11]: 1-4). His own lips are unclean, unworthy to participate in the seraphic hymn to God’s holiness. He is unable to do more than confess his vileness before the God to whom he will henceforth refer as “the Holy One of Israel.”

Because man cannot cleanse himself, a Seraph is dispatched to purge the prophet’s lips with a burning coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice (verse 6). This coal from the altar represents the purging power of that Sacrifice, of which all the biblical sacrifices are types and preparations, that Sacrifice that takes away the sins of humanity. This coal is so hot that even the Seraph, the “fiery one,” must handle it with tongs. The fire itself, burning perpetually (Leviticus 6:12-13), represents the divine holiness (Exodus 3:2-6; 19:18-25).

Isaiah’s sins are purged away by the sacrificial fire (verse 7). That is to say, his confession leads immediately to his purging, and this purging leads immediately to his calling as a prophet. The chapter’s remaining verses concern the conditions and purpose of Isaiah’s ministry.

Friday, November 2

Isaiah 7: The covenanted house of David was in dire straits by reason of international politics. It was now 735, seven years after Isaiah’s call. Assyria was on the offensive throughout the Fertile Crescent, thereby prompting local nations in the Crescent’s western half to form a coalition against this new power from the east.

Syria (Damascus) and Israel (Samaria, Ephraim), the major partners in this coalition, had invaded Judah in order to add this latter to their alliance against Assyria (2 Kings 15:37). This invasion failed (verse 1; 2 Chronicles 28:5-8). A second invasion against Judah was imminent (2 Chronicles 28:17-18), this time with a view to replacing King Ahaz on the throne (verse 2). This plan, of course, placed the house of David in jeopardy.

Isaiah speaks the word of reassurance; the efforts of Syria and Israel will come to nothing, so Judah should not fear them. The king must put his trust in God (verse 4), because the promise of God trumps the proposals of men (verses 5-9). (The king, alas, had already sought the aid of Assyria against this coalition of the local states.)

Within sixty-five years, says Isaiah, Israel will cease to be a kingdom. Since this alliance of Syria and Israel was formed in 735 (that is, seven years after Isaiah’s call as a prophet), the ending year of the sixty-five years was 670, the very year during which alien migrants, brought by the Assyrians under the Emperor Esarhaddon (2 Kings 17:24; 2 Chronicles 33:11; Ezra 4:2), arrived from the east to settle the land of Samaria, the former kingdom of Israel. Isaiah ends with a plea for faith—“If you don’t stand in faith, you won’t stand at all” (ta’aminu . . . te’amenu).

Isaiah’s prophecy of the child (verses 14-16) concerned the fate of Damascus, the capital of Syria, which fell to the Assyrians three years later, in 732, and of Israel, which the Assyrians destroyed ten years after that. In this prophecy’s most elementary meaning, the intended child is any child conceived about this time. Such a child, says the prophet, would not reach the age of discretion (“able to distinguish right from wrong”) before the whole land would be over-run with Assyrians.

But there is more. This elementary meaning hardly justifies the exotic description given by Isaiah. The “child” is also more than just any child. He assumes dimensions that no mere child of earth could possibly support. He is also a particular child to be born some time in the future, and Isaiah will subsequently describe him in terms utterly unique. He will gather the scattered children of God (8:11-22; 11:12-13). This child is no longer just any child. He is a deliverer (9:3-7), even “God the mighty” (9:6). He would be in a most literal sense, “God with us” (Matthew 1:22-23). It is no wonder that Isaiah is sometimes called “the fifth Evangelist.”