October 30 – November 6, 2020

Friday, October 30

James 5:1-6: His manifest familiarity with the Old Testament prophets prompts James to dwell on the causal relationship of greed to many and grievous social evils. Indeed at the pen of James the word “wealthy” becomes nearly a synonym for “unjust,” and those thus described are sternly warned and summoned to repentance.

Since it is very difficult to believe that many wealthy people were among those who first heard read this epistle of James (2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28), this section of the epistle is reasonably regarded as a warning to those who are not rich but would prefer to be. Perhaps the latter number for a majority of James’ readers. It seems obvious that more people love wealth than have it. This preference for wealth over poverty, because it is nearly universal, prompted the Apostle Peter to ask, “Who, then, can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)

It is the love of wealth. after all, not the wealth itself, that is spiritually dangerous, and a preference for wealth opens the door to the love of wealth. The very thought of wealth, then, because it is an attractive thought, is already freighted with moral and spiritual peril.

As we observed earlier, James fears that a preference for wealth over poverty is readily translated into a preference for the wealthy over the poor (2:1-4), and this fear is apparently what inspires the harshness with which James speaks here of the wealthy. From the very beginning of this epistle, in fact, James has emphasized the danger of riches (1:9-11). This danger is found everywhere, because a preference for wealth is widespread among men.

So much is this the case that Christians have long regarded the voluntary renunciation of property a kind of “perfection” of the Gospel life (Matthew 19:21), a regard that gave rise to monastic life. Such a renunciation has at least the effect of rendering less likely the fearful judgments to which James refers in these verses.

For James, as for most people, expensive clothing is the clearest sign of wealth and is worn for precisely that reason (verse 2; Isaiah 4:16-26; Acts 12:21; 20:33; Horace, Letters 1.6.40-44). Alas, this interest has not diminished on the earth. Even today James would lament among Christians the same distressing preoccupation with sartorial extravagance, fashion clothing, designer labels, and similar vanity. All these things pertain to worldliness, which is the enemy of God (4:4).

Resources spent on fashion clothing are better conferred on the poor, James indicates, because this conferral will clothe the believer himself against God’s final judgment on man’s social history (verses 4-6).

Saturday, October 31

James 5:7-20: In this section, which follows his reference to the final judgment, James pursues two lines of thought simultaneously, alternating his attention between two themes that have to do with that judgment. On the one hand, there is an exhortation to patience while we await the final judgment, and on the other hand we ourselves are warned with respect to that judgment. James goes back and forth between these two ideas.

In exhorting believers to the exercise of patience, James appeals to two sources of instruction, nature and history. First, with respect to nature, he holds out the example of the farmer, who must steadfastly await the time of harvest. The farmer does not immediately reap the fruits of his labor but must persevere until the Lord provides the fruit, which will not come until the time is ready (verse 7). Similarly the believer must hold fast in the face of persecutions (verses 4-6), as well as the many other difficulties common to human life (verses 12-14,19).

Second, with respect to history, James appeals to the example of the lives of the biblical prophets, among whom he singles out Job, the classical just man who is tried in faith. “We count them blessed [makarizomen],” he says, “who endure [hypomeinantes].” James is resuming here a theme he introduced earlier, the blessedness of the man who is put to the trial: “Blessed [makarios] is the man who endures [hypomenei] temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (1:12). Job appears, then, as James’ example of the “blessed man” who endured.

The second aspect of the final judgment, for James, is that of a salutary warning to Christians themselves, and in this regard he cautions us in two matters.

First, we must be cautious how we treat one another: “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!”

Second, we must be cautious of how we speak of God. All forms of swearing, for example, must be excluded from the Christian’s vocabulary. God’s name must never be taken lightly and irreverently in our speech: “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.”

In both cases, we observe, James appeals to the coming judgment as a motive for circumspection.

James speaks of prayer in each of the next six verses (verses 13-18). The link word joining these verses to the preceding section is the verb “to suffer” (kakopathein— literally, “to experience evil”—verse 13), which corresponds to the noun kakopathia (verse 9).

A special form of prayer is that offered by the presbyters off the Church when they anoint the sick in the Lord’s name (verse 14; Mark 6:13). These “presbyters,” from whose name we derive the English word “priests,” were the pastors of the local congregations (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 1 Timothy 5:17,19). Prayer for the sick is a Christian practice inherited from Judaism (Sirach 38:9-10). The reference to the sacramental rite of anointing indicates that it is distinct from the charismatic gift of healing (1 Corinthians 12:9,28,30).

The sacramental rite of healing, inasmuch as it also heals from sins, introduces the subject of the confession of sins (verses 15-16). It is instructive to observe that this text, which is perhaps the New Testament’s clearest reference to auricular confession, is placed in the context of the ministry of local pastors. Like the Old Testament priests, who were obliged to hear confessions in order to offer the appropriate sacrifice for sins (Leviticus 5:5; Numbers 5:7), the pastors of the New Testament are also to be “father confessors,” who absolve from sins on behalf of the Church (John 20:22-23; Matthew 9:8).

As James invoked Abraham and Rahab as exemplars of good works (2:21-25), and Job as a model of patience (5:11), so now he appeals to Elijah as a person to be emulated with respect to prayer (verses 17-18; 1 Kings 17:1,7; 18:1,41-45; Sirach 48:2-3).

The author’s recent reference to the forgiveness of sins (verses 15-16) prompts him finally to speak of the conversion of sinners. No greater favor can we do for a man than to bring him back to the path of conversion (verses 19-20).

The epistle thus ends abruptly.

Sunday, November 1

Matthew 5:1-12: The Gospel text to explore, on the feast of All Saints, is the presentation of the Beatitudes. Close readers of Matthew have long observed that the Sermon forms a commentary on the Beatitudes with which it begins. This commentary is also chiastic, meaning that it reverses the order of the Beatitudes. Thus, for example, verses 11–12 form a commentary on verse 10, verses 13–16 are a commentary on verse 9, and so forth.

Revelation 4:1-11: On this feast of All Saints, we read of John’s vision on the
Like Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and other prophets, John slips into an ecstatic trance, a rapture in which he is seized by the Holy Spirit. He hears a voice, and a mysterious door opens. He is introduced to the heavenly worship before God’s throne, over which is the rainbow of the covenant (cf Genesis 9:12-17). The dominant color is green, the symbol of spring and hope.

As in the temple of Solomon (1 Kings 7:23), which was modeled, after all, on the heavenly throne room, there is “a sea of glass, like crystal,” symbolizing the chaos over which the Holy Spirit brooded in Creation. Other details remind us of Isaiah 6 (which is also read today) and Ezekiel 1. This should not surprise us, because in all of Holy Scripture we are dealing with the same God and the same heaven. The hymn, with which the chapter closes, concentrates on Creation. Recall that this vision takes place on a Sunday (Revelation 1:10), the first day of Creation.

Isaiah 6: 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.

Monday, 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 himself had recently fathered a son, to whom he gave a name symbolizing the idea of a “remnant” (Shear-Jashub, “a remnant shall return”), thus indicating the hope that he entertained with respect to Judah’s prospects. The prophet brings this son with him as he approaches the king to deliver the oracle that opens this chapter (verse 3).

The son serves as a kind of prophetic enactment of Isaiah’s message to Ahaz. The prophet and his son meet the king at the aqueduct that provided Jerusalem with water prior to Hezekiah’s construction of an underground aqueduct some years later. Presumably Ahaz was inspecting the water supply in view of the coming siege.

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. There would no agriculture; the child would have only dairy products and honey to eat. They could call any such child “Emmanuel,” because the name means “God is (still) with us.” By the time the child reached the age of discretion, it would be all over for Syria and Israel. Indeed, Isaiah’s second son, soon to be conceived (8:1-4), would be such a child.

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 sometime 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.”

Tuesday, October 3

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.

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 seacoast, 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.

Wednesday, 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).

There is a problem in the Hebrew text of the third verse, which reads, “You have multiplied the nation and not increased the joy,” which is perfectly grammatical but makes no sense. This Hebrew reading, which is followed by the Latin Vulgate and the King James Version, comes from a copyist’s mistaking lo, “unto it,” as lo’, “not.” To make coherent sense of the verse it is reasonable, and seems necessary, to correct the text to “You have multiplied the nation and increased joy unto it.”

The following verse (4) goes on to enumerate the blessings that increased the joy of the people, comparing their blessings to Gideon’s liberation of Israel from the Midianites as recorded in Judges 6—8. Gideon’s victory, we recall, benefited the Galilean tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali (Judges 6:35). Hence the propriety of Isaiah’s historical reference.

The Hebrew text of verse 5 contains a play of sounds impossible to convey adequately in English: “Every soldier’s boot (se’on) used in battle (so’en).” A fire will destroy all instruments of war, because the reign of the Messiah will be a reign of peace.

Which consideration brings us to verse 6, which indicates the reason for this coming era of peace, the birth of the Messiah. He is both a human child and a divine Son, described here in terms that fit only one person in history. His name is fourfold: “wonderful counselor” (like Solomon, but unlike the current king, Ahaz), “almighty God” (’El gibbór, corresponding to the Immánu El in 7:14), “everlasting Father” (indeed, the new Adam), and “prince of peace (sar shalom). This King will be the true Solomon—Shlomo, “man of peace”; his will be a true reign of peace (verse 7). This son of David will be David’s very Lord (Matthew 22:41-46).

Thursday, November 5

Isaiah 10: The radical selfishness Isaiah 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 divine judgment prophesied in this poem is larger than the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722. Considered in the full context of the canonical Book of Isaiah, this prophecy points to the final judgment on history by the King that appears at the end of time to separate the sheep from the goats. Indeed, the social sins condemned here by Isaiah are the very ones of which Jesus speaks in His famous parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:41-43). The characteristics of the final Judge will be described in the third and final section of the Book of Isaiah, where we will read of the vindicating Warrior.

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 sometime 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.

Isaiah’s comparison of Sennacherib (704-681) to Oreb is particularly appropriate, inasmuch as both men were punished after their respective battles were lost.

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).

In fact, God is preparing to cut down this mighty forest of an army (verses 33-34). This image prepares the reader for the oracle that begins the next chapter. The coming destruction of the Assyrian forest clears the ground, as it were, for the new shoot from the stump to which the invading army has reduced the root of Jesse, the royal house of David. The first part of the Book of Isaiah will end with the prophet’s narrative of this event (chapters 36—37).

Friday, 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).
Although the original context for the present message of encouragement was apparently the dark season of the Assyrian invasions, the hope contained in this text extends into the future. It is a prophecy that has in view the coming history of the people of God. This messianic reign is not solely for the Jews, because the nations (goyim will also seek the root of Jesse (verse 10; cf. verse 12; 2:2-4; 9:1-7).