August 19 – August 26, 2022

Friday, August 19

First Kings 19: In the Books of Kings it is not difficult to perceive the ways in which the prophets Elijah and Elisha resemble the great Moses. Indeed, emphasizing that resemblance pertained very much to the author’s purpose, for he had in mind to portray them both as Moses’ latter-day successors, each providing some measure of fulfillment to Moses’ own prophecy that he would be succeeded by a prophet like himself (Deuteronomy 18:15–18). This perspective is likewise part of the Bible’s more general care to regard the prophetic corpus as the proper sequence to the Law. In fact, the expression “the Law and the Prophets” is sometimes employed to mean simply the whole Hebrew Bible.

In due course we shall explore the ways in which Elisha (introduced in the present chapter) resembles Moses. For now, let us limit our consideration to Elijah, who resembles Moses in several particulars of his story: a miraculous provision of meat and bread in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4–7), a fast of forty days while journeying through the desert on the strength of miraculously provided bread and water (19:4–8), and, in the present chapter, an encounter with the Lord on Mount Horeb, complete with all the sounds and sights associated with Moses’ own experience in that place. Elijah receives his prophecies on the very mountain where Moses received the Law. Like Moses too, Elijah covers his face in response to his mountaintop experience (19:9–13). Then, when the time comes for Elijah to leave this life, he repeats Moses’ act of parting the waters and then disappears east of the Jordan, where Moses disappeared (2 Kings 2:8–18).

As the present chapter begins, Elijah is afraid, this same Elijah who acted so fearlessly in the preceding story. He flees the vengeance and wrath of Jezebel, whose prophets he slew after the episode on Mount Carmel. Elijah is also very tired from the exertions of the previous day, to say nothing of the ordeals associated with the long drought and famine. As he flees southward, he comes to Beersheba, at the southern boundary of Judah. Even for northerners this city is a popular site of pilgrimage (cf. Amos 5:5; 8:14). Here he leaves his servant, for Elijah has in mind to go much further south.

He proceeds another day into the Judean desert and sits under a tree, feeling very discouraged. In this respect Elijah resembles two earlier discouraged travelers in the desert, Moses and David. Totally distressed, he falls asleep from the heat and great fatigue. Twice an angel from the Lord feeds him with bread and water in the wilderness. Strengthened by these modest meals, he travels another 40 days—reminiscent of Moses’ forty years in the wilderness—until he comes to Mount Horeb (Sinai), where the Lord entered into covenant with Israel. He climbs the mountain to the place where Moses met the Lord, amid earthquake, fire, and whirlwind. Elijah’s own revelation from the Lord, however, takes place in a still small voice.

The prophet is warned about the dangers of isolation and self-pity. He is instructed to go back down the mountain and make contact with some of the seven thousand of the Lord’s loyal servants. Elijah must stop all this I-alone-am-left nonsense. There is still work to do. First, he must anoint two new kings, Hazael over Syria and Jehu over Israel. We take note that the Lord has a covenant with neither of these men, but He does choose them.

Finally, Elijah is to anoint Elisha to be his own replacement in the prophetic ministry.

Saturday, August 20

First Kings 20: This chapter starts with a Syrian siege of Samaria (verses 1-6). The fortress at Samaria, constructed during the reigns of Omri and Ahab, was almost impregnable; when it later fell to the Assyrians in 722, the latter force needed siege machines and three years to accomplish the task.

In response to the demands of the besiegers, King Ahab takes counsel of the tribal elders, who have taken refuge within the fortress. These encourage the king to resist boldly.

What happens next may surprise the reader, who knows that the Lord has already rejected Ahab (cf. 19:16). In spite of this rejection, the king still receives positive prophetic messages from the Lord (verses 13,28). That is to say, in spite of Israel’s schism from the covenanted throne at Jerusalem, in spite of the people’s continued infidelities, and in spite of the apostasy of Ahab, the Lord sustains His faithfulness.

This divine fidelity to the people of the Northern Kingdom—the schismatic kingdom—is of a piece with the material in the surrounding chapters, particularly the ministry of Elijah. The lesson drawn from this entire account indicates that the God of the Covenant does not suddenly lose interest in His people when a schism occurs. This lesson should be a source of comfort and strength to all Christians today, who are heirs to the many schisms which have divided them over the centuries; when schisms occur among the people of God, God is certainly displeased, but this in no way implies that redeeming grace is limited to just one side of a schismatic situation. Throughout the Book of Kings, we see grace poured out in both the south and the north, notwithstanding the schism between them.

Ahab, encouraged by the counsel of the elders and the word of the prophet, makes a very successful sortie against the Syrians, who have let their guard down—“Benhadad was drinking himself drunk in the encampment.” The armies of Syria’s vassal states panic, and the rest of the Syrian army retreats, but Ahab is warned that they will try again (verses 16-22).

The do try again in the spring, this time east of the Sea of Galilee, on the road joining Israel with Damascus. Once again, Ahab receives prophetic assurance (verse 28), apparently from the same prophet who had encouraged him earlier (says Josephus, Antiquities 8.14.3). When King Benhadad of Syria (known in Assyrian sources as “Hadadezer”) is captured, he agrees to a politically expedient treaty with Ahab (verses 30-34). Actually, these two men need one another, because the region is about to be invaded by a king more powerful than either, Shalmaneser III of Assyria. Israel and Syria will be parts of a coalition assembled to oppose the Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar in 854 B.C.

Sunday, August 21

First Kings 21: Naboth was a conservative. He could even be called a hopeless conservative, because he was also an anachronism. The moving times had passed him by, and his desperate cause was doomed from the start.

But even to speak of Naboth’s “cause” is probably misleading, for he was certainly no activist nor agitator, no reactionary nor leader of a movement. On the contrary, Naboth was a quiet, private man who wanted only to be left alone, free to grow his grapes on the little plot his fathers had planted for roughly three centuries.

There had been a time—and not so very long before—when Naboth’s modest aspirations represented an ideal. Even a century earlier, during the reign of Solomon (961–922 BC), it was said that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Truth to tell, the Mosaic ordinance, taken literally, prescribed that no man’s farm, the land bequeathed by his father, should ever pass definitively out of the family. In due course, rather, those same inherited fields would be handed on to the next generation, so that household and real estate would remain forever inseparable (Leviticus 25:23; Numbers 36:7).

But by Naboth’s day the times had changed, and fewer folks felt tied so to their land. Indeed, in large measure Solomon himself, by introducing new mercantile enterprises and fiscal policies, had been responsible for the change. Thanks to the peace that David’s sword had brought to the region, international trade started to boom in the second half of the tenth century before Christ. By shrewd geopolitical maneuvers, Solomon joined the vast shipping interests of the Mediterranean to the extensive mercantile empire of Sheba, spread through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and waters more exotic still.

As a consequence of these adventures, new and lucrative employment was to be had in Israel’s expanding cities, jobs much easier than the long hours and back-bending labor of the small family farm. Little wonder, then, that many Israelites began to adopt a less-than-literal understanding of the ancient rules about not letting their land be lost from the family. Attracted by the prospect of a brighter future in the city, working at any of the scores of new professions spawned by Solomon’s economic success, many citizens simply forfeited the inheritance of their fathers.

This rich economic development meant, of course, fewer farmers and larger farms. This adjustment created no immediate problems of labor, nonetheless, because the larger farms were more efficiently cultivated with tools made from a recently smelted metal called iron. Plowshare blades, axes, hoes, and scythes were sturdier than ever. Furthermore, farmers learned to seal the walls of their wells and cisterns with calcium oxide, thus preserving the precious water needed for irrigation. Food production increased enormously.

The enhanced nutrition not only lowered the infant mortality rate, it also led to earlier puberty and menarche, thus increasing the birth rate. The larger and healthier population provided the expanding work force needed for the economic boom. In short, as far as the bankers and financiers were concerned, the times were bright, and the future looked brighter. Seldom any more did one hear his elders talk of “the good old days” prior to this new, advanced era.

Not every man, however, fell into step with the march of progress, and a hundred years later there were still some stubborn, godly souls who, reading the Mosaic mandates rather close to the letter, maintained the homesteads very much as their forebears had done. Naboth, whose story is told in 1 Kings 21, was one of these dogged holdouts. When King Ahab, coveting Naboth’s vineyard in Jezreel, sought to buy or swap for it, he was met by the owner’s emphatic “No!”

Because Ahab’s queen was a ruthless woman, not scrupulous about such matters as suborning perjury and shedding blood, Naboth paid for his conservatism with the price of his life. Like his contemporary Elijah, this brave vine-grower stood defenseless but defiant before raw power and cruel injustice. This baffling Naboth’s hearty answer to Ahab (21:3) may serve as a battle cry for every true conservative: “The Lord forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!”

Monday, August 22

Acts 26.19-32: Faced by a pagan unfamiliar with belief in the resurrection, Paul turns to Agrippa for a more sympathetic hearing. However, when Paul, answering what seems to be something of a jest on the king’s part, invites him to become a Christian, the king becomes uncomfortable, and the hearing is abruptly ended.

Psalm 114: This psalm is a perfect illustration of Hebraic parallelism, a feature found in so much of the Bible’s poetry and the aphorisms of its wisdom literature. The references to Egypt/barbarous people, mountains/hills, stone/flint, rams/lambs, sanctuary/domain, are synonymous parallels, in that they are roughly repetitious. They serve the function of slowing down our prayer, making us take a calmer, more contemplative pace.

Others of the parallelisms here, Red Sea/Jordan and Judah/Israel, are merismatic, the merismus being a device of dividing a whole into representative components and addressing them separately. This serves the function of making our prayer more discursive and analytical. Our psalm combines both techniques very effectively.

In all such cases, the intent of the literary construction is to slow down our reading of the poem, making us go over everything twice, forcing the mind to a second and more serious look at the line, prolonging our prayer, obliging us not to go rushing off somewhere. Such poetry is deeply meditative, and the reader who resists its impulse will find himself with acid indigestion of the mind, serious “heartburn” in a most radical and theological sense.

There are two events described in this psalm, the turning back of the Red Sea at the Exodus, and the identical phenomenon of the Jordan River at Israel’s entrance into Canaan. These two occasions, which are also juxtaposed in Joshua 4:23, form the psalm’s twin poles, Israel’s departure from Egypt and her entrance into the Promised Land. Between these two events lie the giving of the Law and the forty years’ wandering of God’s people in the wilderness. Whereas the two poles of that crucial period, the Red Sea and the Jordan, are marked by God’s removal of the waters from their native settings, the time in between them is marked by God’s miraculously given water for His people wandering through the dry sands of the desert.

God, in short, reverses the expected course of things. He makes wet places dry, and the dry places wet. As for mountains and hills, what could be better symbols of stability, standards of the normal and expected? Mountains and hills, it would seem, are not easily moved. Nonetheless, God moves them, as was demonstrated in the earthquake shaking Mount Sinai when the Law was given. Because of the face of the Lord, that face that Moses prayed to behold on Sinai, the mountains and the hills jumped around like sheep, as it were, the normal and expected state of things becoming unstrung before the awesome face of God. Hills go skipping about!

Everything is set on its head. It is this complete dominion of the Lord that is manifested in His great acts of redemption: the Exodus, the giving of the Law, the desert wandering, Israel’s crossing the Jordan’s rocky bed into the land flowing with milk and honey.

Holy Scripture often identifies the Church in terms of Israel’s experience in the Red Sea, at Sinai and in the desert, and in the crossing of the Jordan. The pattern is quite standard in the New Testament, and readers of the multiplication of the loaves, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews will recognize this at once. This is very much a psalm about ourselves and our life in Christ.

Tuesday, August 23

Second Kings 1: The death of Ahab, because it effectively served as a death knell for the dynasty of Omri in the north, appropriately closed the First Book of Kings. Ahab’s two sons, Ahaziah (854-852) and Jehoram (852-841), will not amount to much. Already, on Mount Horeb, the Lord revealed to Elijah who would rule Israel next; indeed, this next part of the monarchical history presupposes the instructions Elijah received on Mount Horeb. There will be new dynasties in Syria and Israel, and a new prophet, Elisha, enters the scene.

The kingdom of Moab, east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, has been chafing under Israelite control for a long time, first under Jerusalem and then under Samaria. Learning of Ahab’s death, the Moabites declare their independence. As we shall see when we come to the story of King Mesha in chapter 3, they will have to fight for this independence.

Ahab’s son and successor, Ahaziah, when injured by a fall, seeks counsel about his injury from a prophet of Baal (whom the narrator—or perhaps a copyist—mockingly calls “Baalzebub,” or “lord of flies”). Elijah, instructed by an angel, meets the king’s delegation and gives them God’s view of this consultation. Evidently, the prophet does not identify himself. Consequently, when the delegation returns to the king, he questions them about the man’s appearance. Their description removes all doubt that the melancholy message the king receives—“you will surely die”—comes from the man Ahaziah’s father called “the trouble-maker of Israel” (First Kings 18:17).

Ahaziah determines to speak with Elijah in person, and to this end he dispatches other delegations, summoning the prophet to the royal presence. Until the Lord tells him to accept the summons, however, Elijah declines to go to the king, no matter how urgent and forceful the pressure to do so. In addition, the first two delegations themselves come to a bad end. The captain of the third delegation, desperate not to suffer a similar fate and reluctant to return to court without Elijah, pleads with the prophet. It is then that the Lord tells Elijah to go to Ahaziah and deliver the divine decree in person.

Ahaziah, accordingly, dies; the year is 852, two years after the Battle of Qarqar. His passing testifies to the authenticity of Elijah’s mission to Israel—“according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken.” As the deceased king has left no heir, the throne comes to Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram (852-841), who is also a son of Jezebel.

Wednesday, August 24

Second Kings 2: This text describes a scene from the ninth century before Christ. It portrays a journey that the prophet Elijah apparently wanted to make alone. His understudy, however, a younger man named Elisha, was determined to accompany him.

The journey began at Gilgal, the place where the Israelites had first encamped after they crossed the Jordan River into the Holy Land. From Gilgal the two of them walked NNW to Bethel, the place where Jacob had had his vision of the ladder reaching up to heaven.

It is not clear exactly why Elijah wanted to go to Bethel. It is an engaging thought, however, to imagine that he hoped to climb that ladder, since apparently everybody in the story knew that it was time for Elijah to leave this world. At Bethel, our two travelers meet a group known as the Sons of the Prophets, a prophetic guild that had attached themselves to Elijah. In this group we are probably correct to see an early example of biblical monasticism.

After Bethel, our two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, partly retrace their steps to the south and arrive at Jericho, the very place of passage when Joshua’s forces had first entered the Holy Land. Here, again, they encounter another group of the Sons of the Prophets.

From Jericho, the two men arrive at the Jordan River, followed by fifty of the Sons of the Prophets, who watch them from a distance. In imitation of Joshua—and even of Moses at the Red Sea—Elijah parts the waters of the Jordan, so that he and his companion walk to the other side. It was to that place that the Lord dispatched the chariot of fire to take up his loyal servant from this world.

It is essential to this story that Elijah did not die, and in this respect he is very different from all the other biblical prophets. For the past three thousand years, Elijah has continued to be active in this world. From 2 Chronicles 21 we learn that Elijah wrote a letter to King Jehoram of Judah, threatening his life with disease because of his idolatry.

Now this seems pretty straightforward to most Bible-readers, who do not pay close attention to what they read. If the reader pay close attention, however, he will notice that Elijah wrote this letter after his ascent into heaven. That is to say, the prophet is not dead; he is still actively participating in the life of God’s people.

We observe that Elijah came down, along with Moses, to be with Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Like the angels, Elijah can return to earth at any time. For this reason, it is common for devout Jews, when they celebrate the Passover, to set a place at table, just in case Elijah decides to show up. Indeed, the door is intentionally left ajar for him. Devout Jews has always believed that Elijah would come again to earth just before the Messiah.

The Church Fathers agree with them on the point. St Ambrose was among those Fathers who believed that the earth wiill see one more—and really big—appearance just before Gabriel blows the final trumpet.

Gabriel himself is a good friend of Elijah. Indeed, when he announced the coming of John the Baptist, Gabriel told Zachary that his son “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In the Gospels we observe that John the Baptist was obliged to deny that he, himself, was Elijah.

Elijah remains ever present to the Church’s view of history. He was the prophet who challenged King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah it was who slew the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah embodies the prophetic spirit of the Church, especially in the Church’s dealings with the world’s political, economic, and social order. Elijah remains forever the conscience of the people of God, that rooster whose crowing incessantly stirs the consciousness of the Church and sharpens the Church’s preaching to a prophetic edge.

Thursday, August 25

Second Kings 3: The present chapter, concerned with Israel’s dealings with the Moabite nation, testifies to Elisha’s prophetic involvement in geopolitics.

Omri, the father of Ahab, had subjected the Moabites thirty years before. Indeed, the Moabite king in the present chapter, Mesha, left us an important inscription, which speaks of that subjection and of his own rebellion against Israel. That inscription reads, in part, “Omri, king of Israel, had oppressed Moab for many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him, and he also said, ‘I will oppress Moab.’ In my days he said this, but I have triumphed over him and his house, and Israel has perished forever.” Needless to say, the present chapter of Kings gives a somewhat different version of Mesha’s rebellion.

What Mesha did accomplish was the fortification of the northern routes from Israel, which obliged Jehoram to approach Moab from the south—“by way of the wilderness of Edom” (verse 8). For this venture, he needed the cooperation of Judah and Edom; this he secured by establishing a coalition with King Jehoshaphat and the Edomites (verse 7). The formation of this coalition is to be dated between 852 and 848.

The southern approach to Moab lay through the desert, through which the coalition force was obliged to march for a whole week, exhausting their water supply. In desperation they sought prophetic counsel from Elisha, whom they knew to have been the servant of Elijah (verses 9-12).

Elisha, who knew a thing or two about Baal worship in Israel, first suggested— sarcastically—that these three kings seek counsel from Baalist prophets. In the context of the current shortage of water, this sarcasm recalled the famous drought of Ahab’s time, the drought that ended when Elijah killed the prophets of Baal.

At last, however, Elisha prophesies an abundance of water to supply the needs of the coalition army, and the next morning a flood flows from the south—that is, from the very desert. The besieged Moabites, when they saw the water on the red sandstone hills to the south, imagined it was blood, and they concluded that the three partners of the coalition must have slaughtered one another during the night. (In Hebrew the very word, “Edom,” means “red” and is a cognate of dam, which means “blood.”

Rushing out to despoil the besieging camp, the Moabites were routed by the forces of the coalition. King Mesha, in desperation, offered his own son in sacrifice, thus bringing “a great wrath on Israel.” Apparently this terrible gesture rallied the forces of Moab, so that they dispersed the coalition and gained independence from Israel. Contrary to Mesha’s claim, however, it is not true that “Israel has perished forever.”

Friday, August 26

Second Kings 5: Naaman’s is the most interesting story of a Gentile who came to the faith and worship of Israel’s God. A general in the service of King Benhadad II of Syria during the ninth century before Christ, he was persuaded by a little Israelite girl, a captive of the Syrians, to make a pilgrimage to Israel in hopes of being cleansed of his leprosy. Fortunately for Naaman, the Prophet Elisha was in residence at the time, for whom the curing of leprosy was a small part of a day’s work.

We know on the authority of Jesus Himself that Naaman’s story signified God’s plans for the salvation of the Gentiles (Luke 4:27; 2 Kings 5:15–17). That is to say, what happened to Naaman prefigured the Christian mission to the nations. An especially ironic feature of this story is that this Gentile confessed the true God during a time when many in Israel were engaged in the worship of false gods. He obeyed the Lord’s prophet when not a few of that prophet’s coreligionists were refusing to do so.

And just what did Elisha oblige Naaman to do? “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:10). This order seems simple enough, but Naaman evidently expected something a bit more sudden and dramatic: “I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy’” (5:11).

Naaman, you see, though a religious man, did not yet know about sacraments, and the action required of him by Elisha—dipping into the Jordan seven times—had a distinctly sacramental quality. It was not “only a symbol,” but a symbolic action specifically designated by God for the granting of grace. It actually accomplished something.

By bathing in the Jordan, Naaman would be doing a thing of great moment. He would be identifying with the Israelites who went through that river as their passage into the Promised Land. A whole generation of them had been baptized, as it were, in the Jordan, as the previous generation had been baptized in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2). Just as those ancient events had foreshadowed the Christian sacrament of baptism (10:11), Naaman’s mystic sevenfold immersion in that same mystic river was to serve as a prophecy of the future baptizing of the nations.

What was required of Naaman was the “obedience of faith” (hypakoe pisteos—Romans 1:5; 16:26). Unless he did what he was told, he would remain a leper. John Chrysostom thus compared Naaman to the blind man whom Jesus commanded to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam; both were required to make the same act of obedience in faith (Homilies on John 56). Naaman received from Elisha essentially the same command that the newly converted Paul would someday receive from Ananias: “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).

Naaman did not understand any of this. What, after all, was so special about the Jordan River? “Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” Naaman was not yet converted. He still resisted doing something he did not understand: “So he turned and went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:12).

Naaman’s loyal friends, however, eventually persuaded him to obey the prophet, “so he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (5:14). By way of prophetic prefiguration, Naaman submitted to the stern exhortation of the Apostle Peter, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). He went, he washed, he was cleansed.

It is in such terms that the Church of Jesus Christ has ever read the story of Naaman. The little girl who sent Naaman to be baptized, said Ambrose of Milan, “bore the mien of the Church and represented her image”—speciem habebat Ecclesiae et figuram representabat (De Sacramentis 2.8). “It was not for nothing,” wrote Irenaeus of Lyons, “but for our instruction, that Naaman of old, suffering from leprosy, was cleansed by being baptized [on baptistheis ekathaireto]. For as we are lepers by sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions through [dia] the sacred water and the invoking of the Lord, being spiritually regenerated as newborn children, even as the Lord declared, ‘Unless a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the Kingdom of God’” (Fragment 34).