November 2 – November 9, 2018

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.”

Saturday, November 3

Isaiah 8: Isaiah must take a large tablet, something that could serve as a conspicuous sign, and write on it in clear letters, “concerning Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, four words meaning “Quick-Spoil-Hurry-Booty” (verse 1). If this seems mysterious to us, it was no less so to Isaiah’s contemporaries. Witnesses to the event were recorded (verse 2), who could vouch for the date of the inscription.

Later, Isaiah is instructed to make this strange inscription the name of his second son (verse 3), who becomes an enfleshment of the prophet’s spoken message of impending doom (verse 4). When his prophecy has been fulfilled by the Assyrian invasion, the two witnesses could testify to the date of the prophecy. This prophetic act forms a striking but contrasting parallel to the Emmanuel prophecy in the preceding chapter.

In 734 Tiglath-Pileser, who had marched across the Fertile Crescent, turned his forces south, along the sea coast, to check the Egyptians, who might have been tempted to march north and intervene. He next neutralized King Hosea of Israel, depopulating a large section of Galilee. Finally, he turned his attention to Syria, which fell in 732.

Shiloh (verse 6) was the stream that flowed quietly from the spring of Gihon and provided water to Jerusalem. It symbolized the tranquility of obedient faith. This faith had been abandoned when Israel broke with the throne of David in 922. This faithless northern kingdom was now putting its trust in Syria and in its own apostate monarchy.

Syria and Israel would soon be visited by another river, the mighty Tigris, which symbolized the Assyrian Empire (verse 7). These nations had chosen the world rather than God, and now the world would flood them over. The invasion would be so devastating that even Judah would feel the flood, barely able to keep its head above water (verse 8). In appealing to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16), Ahaz had submitted the Davidic throne to a foreign and idolatrous power. It would never be the same again.

The second part of this chapter treats of the faithful remnant, those who will escape the coming devastation attendant on the Assyrian invasion.

Isaiah mocks the coalition arranged against Judah:

Be shattered, O you peoples, and be broken in pieces! / Give ear, all you from far countries. / Gird yourselves, but be broken in pieces; / Gird yourselves, but be broken in pieces. / Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; / Speak the word, but it will not stand, / For God is with us—Emmanu-El.

The prophet’s confidence is related to his inner separation from the infidelity of his contemporaries:

For the Lord spoke thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people.

Isaiah deliberately separates himself and his family from the irresponsible path currently pursued by his countrymen.

And I will wait on the Lord, / Who hides His face from the house of Jacob; / And I will hope in Him.

Much of the true service of God consists in knowing how to “wait it out” in hope.

Sunday, November 4

Isaiah 9: This chapter is made up of two parts: a separate oracle (verses 1-7) and the first part of a longer poem (9:8—10:4).

The original setting for the opening oracle in this chapter (verses 1-7) was the Assyrian invasion into Syria and Galilee in 733. Now, for the first time, the Israelites suffer the wrath of the Assyrians, who come into the territory of the tribe of Naphtali, along the western coast of the Sea of Galilee and extending further north, and the land of the tribe of Zebulun, the area lying west and southwest of Naphtali, toward the Mediterranean Sea (cf. Joshua 19:10-16,32-39). Afflicted along with these western tribes was the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan valley (verse 1). These Israelite territories, in the eyes of the Assyrians, were indistinguishable from Syria and were treated accordingly, their populations deported a full decade before the downfall of Samaria in 722.

Isaiah calls these territories “Galilee of the Gentiles,” probably because non-Israelites populated much of it; the region had come under the influence and even the rule of the Gentiles since the period of Solomon (1 Kings 9:11).

With the disastrous arrival of the Assyrians, darkness fell on this whole region, but Isaiah prophesies the restoration of light (verse 2). The Messiah, after all, would come for the Gentiles as well as for the Israelites (11:10; 42:1,6; 49:6; 60:1-3). Christians see the fulfillment of this prophecy, for Israelite and Gentile alike, in the arrival of Jesus, who began His ministry in this very area (Matthew 4:12-17).

This disaster is described through the four stanzas: (1) the downfall of the nation (verses 8-12); (2) the suffering resultant from political chaos (verses 13-17); (3) the destruction of a social sense (verses 18-21); and (4) the loss of the moral order (10:1-4).

In the first stanza (verses 8-12) Isaiah is distressed because Israel seems not to have learned the spiritual and moral lesson contained in the disaster that has just befallen it. Still entertaining sentiments of grandeur, those Northerners plan to replace with cut rock the ruined bricks of their destroyed buildings, and to use expensive cedar to rebuild the sycamore beams of their demolished homes. These aspirations are symptomatic of the same spiritual sickness that the Lord had sent the recent calamity to cure.

The second stanza (verses 13-17) describes the ensuing collapse of the political leadership in the Northern Kingdom. The leaders mislead (verse 16), a fact illustrated by a pair of polarities, head and tail/brand and reed (verse 14), both of which mean high and low (verse 15). This loss of political leadership especially touches the young men that perish in battle and the families that are left behind (verse 17). The “single day” is a metaphor for “all of a sudden.”

The third stanza (9:18-21) describes the moral anarchy that reigned during this period, when the loss of adequate political leadership led to the collapse of the social order. It was expressed in radical selfishness, unbridled by ethical and social restraints. Brotherhood was betrayed (verse 19); there was no social cohesion (verse 21). Like fire, lawlessness fed on itself and therefore consumed itself (verses 18, 20). The Lord, in punishment, permitted it to happen (verse 19).

Monday, November 5

Isaiah 10: There are three parts to this chapter: (1) the final stanza of the poem begun in the previous chapter (verses 1-4); (2) an oracle about God’s use of Assyria to accomplish His purposes in history (verses 5-15); (3) an oracle on the theme of the remnant (verses 16-34).

The first section of this chapter (verses 1-4), then, is the fourth and final stanza of the long poem begun in chapter nine (9:8—10:4).

The radical selfishness described earlier (9:18-21), combined with the dissolution of political restraints (9:13-17), increased the misfortunes of those already disadvantaged by the losses of war, namely, the widows and orphans of the slain (verse 2). Indeed, even the powers of legislation are used against these poor, those powers now usurped by the unjust and avaricious (verse 1). Hence, the poverty of the poor is worsened, and the weakness of the oppressed increased.

Such injustices, however, are the harbingers of the impending and ineluctable reckoning of God, which will (verse 3) come “from afar,” that is, from the forces of Assyria in the distant east. Those currently abusing their local power will not escape. The sense in the difficult wording of verse 4 is reasonably preserved in the NIV: “Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.”

The second part of this chapter (verses 5-15) follows the imagery and theme of what immediately precedes it: the divine judgment implemented in history. This oracle is probably to be dated some time soon after 734, when Assyria began in earnest to menace the western half of the Fertile Crescent. Although the kingdom of Judah refused to join the local resistance to Assyria (the coalition of Syria and Israel, about which Isaiah had so much to say), the nation was bound to feel the geopolitical pressure of that great power coming from the east. This was especially the case after the fall of Samaria in 722 (verses 9-11).

This is, in short, an oracle on two views of history: the view of Assyria, which imagined itself imposing its own political determination on the future, and the view of God, the Lord of history, who is using such nations to bring about His own purposes in the future. Who really governs history? asks Isaiah, and he is very clear on the answer.

The Assyrian conqueror, as he moved west and subdued Syria and Israel, did not think of himself as an instrument of the biblical God (verse 7). Indeed, it was the furthest thing from his thoughts (cf. 37:1-13). Nonetheless, from God’s perspective, and according to God’s purposes, the Assyrian was nothing more than an instrument in the divine hand (verses 5,14). He is nothing more than the rod of God’s indignation (verses 5,15), the ax in the grasp of the carpenter; effectively, the Assyrian had only the authority given him from above (verse 6; cf. John 19:11).

At the same time, Assyria was morally responsible for the evil it inflicted on the peoples it conquered. God’s sovereignty in history in no way excuses man’s moral responsibility in history (cf. Romans 9:17-19).

Although Assyria’s invasion of Syria and Israel is the occasion of this oracle, Isaiah intended his words for Judah, which lies next in the path of the Assyrian boot. Indeed, the Assyrian already has Jerusalem in his sights (verses 10-12). Isaiah knows very well that the Assyrian will in a short time be pitching his tents in the siege of Jerusalem.

But Isaiah sees even further; he also prophesies that after the Assyrian has unwittingly served the historical purpose for which the Lord used him, he too will be cut off for his arrogance and cruelty (verses 12-15; cf. 14:13-16,25).

The third section of this chapter (verses 16-34) is an oracle on the theme of the remnant. This theme of the remnant follows logically from the preceding material about devastation and destruction.

In the final oracle of this chapter of Isaiah (verses 16-34) the prophet repeats a double theme that we saw in the previous poem (verses 5-15): first, God uses the powers of this world to chastise His people for their infidelities, and second, He permits these worldly powers neither to destroy His people utterly nor to go unpunished for their own sins.

The true sovereign over history is not some paltry occupant of the Assyrian throne, no matter how impressive he seems to his contemporaries (as in verses 28-32). This thesis about history is what Isaiah enunciates in his references to “the Lord, Lord of hosts” (verses 16,23), “the Holy One” (verses 17,20), the “mighty God” (El gibbor–verse 21; cf. 9:5). The destruction of Assyria, therefore, will be the work of a day (verse 17; cf. 9:1; 10:3; 30:26-33; 37:36).

Marching thus triumphantly toward the holy city, the Assyrian forces have no idea that they are walking into fire, for the light of Israel is not extinguished. The Assyrians are to be feared no more than the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus (verse 24), no more than the Midianites at the time of Gideon (verse 26; Judges 7:25).

The “anointing” in verse 27 refers to the Lord’s messianic covenant with the house of David (cf. 28:16; 37:33-35; 38:5-6) and alludes to the messianic figure that emerges from the stock of Jesse at the beginning of the following chapter. This is a prophecy definitively fulfilled in David’s final and true Heir (cf. Matthew 28:18).

Tuesday, November 6

Isaiah 11: The original setting of this chapter was the same prolonged crisis that prompted Isaiah to speak earlier of the “stump” (6:13) and to describe the destruction of a mighty forest (10:33-34). The house of David had been reduced to a “stump” during the invasions of the Syro-Ephraemitic League and the Assyrians. If the Davidic throne seemed but a stump in the eighth century, this was even more the case two centuries later, when the Book of Isaiah received its final editing. By that time the house of David had been definitively removed from the throne of Judah, never again to be restored in recorded history. These later biblical editors (Ezra, perhaps) were keenly aware of the messianic tension in Isaiah, the tension between the prophesied downfall of the Davidic house (7:17) and the prophesied glory of its restoration (1:25-27). This tension produced chapter 9 and the two poems contained in the present chapter.

These two poems (verses 1-9 and 12-16) are joined by two verses of prose (verses 10-11) that summarize the first and serve as a preamble to the second. The two poems are complementary, both of them dealing with the eschatological characteristics of the divine, messianic reign. The theme of wisdom and knowledge in the first poem (verse 2) finds its parallel in the “knowledge of the Lord” in the second (verse 9).

The future tense of both poems is strengthened by the double “in that day” (bayyom hahu’–verses 10-11) of the prose section. This expression points to the future day of history, when God acts to define the destiny of the world. It will be the renewal of Israel’s ancient deliverance from Egypt (verses 11,16).

The short prose section (verse 10) also takes up “Jesse,” “root,” and “rest” from the first poem (verses 1-2), and introduces “remnant,” “hand,” “sea,” “Assyria,” and “Egypt” (verse 11), which will appear again in the second poem (verses 15-16).

Thus, the entire chapter anticipates a renewed world, in which all peoples will live at peace, both among themselves and with the rest of creation, under the Lord’s anointed King.

This latter, the Messiah, is identified as both the “shoot” (verse 1) and the “root” (verse 10) of Jesse. That is to say, He is both the descendent of David, Jesse’s son, and also the determining source, causa finalis, from which that royal line is derived. He is both David’s Son, in short, and his Lord (Psalm 109 [110]:1; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 1:32; cf. Hosea 3:5; Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23-24). The Messiah is born of David’s line, but He is the root of that line. This Old Testament truth comes to light solely in the New Testament.

The Messiah is endowed with the Holy Spirit (verse 2; cf. 42:1; 52:21; 61:1). The description of the Spirit in this verse resembles the Menorah, with a central core (“the Spirit of the Lord”) and three pairs of extended arms: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, the knowledge and fear of the Lord.

The idyllic setting of peace among the animals (verses 6-8) recalls not only Eden prior to the Fall (Genesis 1:29-30), but also the conditions on Noah’s Ark, another of the great images of salvation.

The little child that presides over this universal peace (verses 6,8) is, of course, the newborn Messiah, the same One recognized by the ass and the ox (1:3). There is no more enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of snakes, for the curse is taken away (verse 8).

Wednesday, November 7

Luke 12:13-34: The brief parable of the rich man’s barns, which introduces the straightforward didactic section on trust in God (verses 22-34), is proper to the Gospel of Luke. It is consistent with Luke’s constant attention to the needs of the poor and his caution about the dangers of wealth. Luke is eloquent and dependable on both of these themes.

The parable is given in response to a request that Jesus intrude His influence in an inheritance dispute between two brothers (verse 13), and prior to presenting His parable the Lord disclaims authority to settle such a dispute: “Then one from the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But He said to him, “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?”

This question and this answer, aside from its function of introducing the parable, already convey an important lesson respecting the Gospel and the world. Jesus refuses to take sides or arbitrate in a domestic and financial dispute in which, presumably, an arguable case could be made for either side. This sort of thing is simply not what He does. He refuses to be made an authority in matters of purely secular dispute.

If this restraint was exercised by the Son of God and the font of justice, how much more should it apply to the Church and her ministries. This story provides no encouragement to those who imagine that the Christian Church should intrude her influence in social, economic, civil, and political controversies on which plausible arguments can be made, whether in theory or in fact, for either side of a case. This is not the vocation of the Church, for the same reason that it was not the vocation of Jesus.

In the societal settings in which the life in Christ is lived, there are certainly circumstances where it is incumbent on the Church and her ministries to speak clearly and fearlessly and decisively. The Church’s intervention in social and political controversies, however, should be limited to those discernible cases. With respect to the other myriad concerns of society and the political order, prudential concerns about which it is legitimate for godly men to disagree, the proper response of the Church should be, as it was for Christ, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12: Paul continues to speak of his own conscience in the Holy Spirit–“… we speak, not as pleasing men, but God, who tests our hearts. . . . God is witness” (verses 4-5). Paul’s behavior was, in fact, being challenged by his opponents. He was being likened to other itinerant preachers who made their living by spreading new and interesting ideas.

Such itinerant preachers were much common in the ancient world. One such group was the cynics, criticized by Dio Chrysostom (AD 40-112, and therefore somewhat contemporary with Paul) for their “error, impurity, and deception.” All of these charges were directed at Paul himself (verses 3-6). Dio Chrysostom goes on to say that a true philosopher should be “gentle as a nurse.” This is exactly how Paul describes himself (verse 7). In addition, Paul appeals to the memory of the Thessalonians themselves with respect to his recent ministry in their city (verses 1,2,5,9,10).

The Thessalonians could be witness of Paul only up to a point, however. The real Paul they could not see. Inside Paul was the plerophoria effected by the Holy Spirit. This was his “complete assurance,” known only to God, so it is to God Himself that Paul appealed as the Judge of his conscience, no matter what others might think of him.

The idea of living under God’s scrutiny was important to Paul’s psychology. He was persuaded that a man was not defiled by what entered him from without, but only by what came from inside, from the heart (cf. Mark 7:14-23). The Apostle rather frequently appeals to God’s inner witnessing (2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9). His mentality seems dominated by the awareness of God’s inner judgment over him.

Thursday, November8

Psalms 74 (Greek & Latin 73): Asaph the Seer, as he contemplates the works of Creation, perceives both conflict and covenant. In the poem that he devotes to this double consideration, he moves back and forth between these two themes, but my prose analysis of the poem is better served, I believe, by taking them in sequence. I propose to start where Asaph starts: with conflict.

The current state of Creation, Asaph perceives, is a constant fight against chaos. He begins his meditation, then, by wondering out loud whether God has cast off—in anger and forever—the sheep of His pasture. The poet returns to this theme repeatedly, distressed that those who hate God are glorified. He is bewildered that the sanctuary is destroyed, and he is scandalized that blasphemy walks the earth unchecked. Chaos prevails without reprieve, with neither sign nor prophet to contradict it. What can the just man do but lament and pray for deliverance?

As he laments, however, Asaph reflects that the very act of Creation was a deed of deliverance. Making things from nothing, the Lord did battle.

Nothingness was not neutral. Existence is not natural to nothingness. The creating God, therefore, conquered a force perverse to His purpose. Centuries before parting the Red Sea, He divided the more primitive waters, cleaving the fountains and the flood, cracking open the multiple heads of the sea monster in order to feed, with their meat, the peoples of Ethiopia. Creation, that is to say, was the initial Exodus, a deliverance from bondage, a redemption from the deep dungeon of non-being. The Lord smote that more ancient Pharaoh and fed him to His hungry creatures.

Creation, then, was a both moral and metaphysical act. The Lord imposed a moral order in the very act of conferring a metaphysical form. When the Lord took hold on the tohu wabohu and invoked His light over the darkness of the abyss, He wrought salvation in the midst of the earth. He did this in the sense that in the very heart of Creation, its arche or principle, there is a deed of redemption, the world’s deliverance from the oppression of primeval chaos.

Consequently, it is to that very ancient deliverance that Asaph appeals when He prays God to rise once more in vindication of His cause against the wicked and the daily blasphemer.

This covenant’s preamble had been composed on the second day, when the Lord, with a firmament, divided the waters. The first article of the covenant was composed on the third day when the dry land appeared and began to grow food for those who were to live upon it.

This covenant of Creation, necessary for all the subsequent covenants of salvation history, was formulated for the sake of man. It gave initial shape to the congregation that God possessed from of old, the rod of the inheritance that He redeemed, even as He dried up the rivers of Ethan and destroyed the demon of the deep. By reason of this covenant, Asaph reflects, God is our king before the ages.

Friday, November 9

1 Thessalonians 3:1-13: The two verbs “strengthen” and “encourage” (sterixsai, parakalesai) (verse 2) are used fairly often in the New Testament to describe what Christians are supposed to do for one another. Indeed, in the pastoral work of the early Christians, these are practically technical expressions for matters of duty. In addition to being used separately, they sometimes appear together in the writings of the two great missionaries who traveled together, Paul and Luke (Romans 1:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:17; Acts 14:22; 15:32).

Probably we should not try to find a distinction between the two verbs, as they are employed in such contexts. Their union is more likely a hendiadys, a way of saying something twice (as in “will and testament”). Strength and encouragement are the same thing, and it is very necessary to Christians (Luke 22:32; Revelation 3:2).

In the present text Paul relates this “strengthening” to faith (as also in Romans 1:11), because he is aware that our faith is always weak. To gain some idea of how little faith we have, it is useful to recall that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain. In any case, it is imperative to strengthen the faith of others by our own faith. John Calvin remarked on this verse: “The fellowship that ought to exist among the saints and the members of Christ surely extends to this point, that the faith of the one proves the consolation of the other.”

According to Paul’s thought here, the Christian who encourages and strengthens other Christians is God’s “fellow laborer,” because he is doing God’s work This also implies, of course, that the Christian who discourages or weakens the faith of other Christians is really working against God.

We may list any number of ways by which we Christians encourage and strengthen one another: a kindly disposition, magnanimity, generosity, genuine and sympathetic interest in the lives of others, good example, a willingness to listen to others when they tell us their troubles. Likewise, there are all sorts of ways to discourage and weaken the faith of others: bad example, excessive criticism and pickiness, unwarranted challenging of the good will and intention of others, being mean minded and selfish.