October 21 – October 28, 2022

Friday, October 21

Nehemiah 8: We come now to the renewal of the covenant (chapters 8—10). The story begins with the public reading of the Law.

In modern church parlance this chapter describes a “revival,” or a “parish renewal,” or even a “Life Alive Weekend.” We are apparently still in October of 445 (7:73), the season associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While Nehemiah has only recently arrived, Ezra has been in Jerusalem for thirteen years, and maybe he figured that the place could use a good dose of “old time religion.”

Ezra, as we reflected earlier, had been engaged in editing the Torah, and the people wanted to hear it (verses 2-3). They gathered to the east of the city (verse 1), not a normal place for gathering. Given the mystic symbolism of this site (the panorama of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives) in two of Israel’s most recent prophets (Ezekiel and Zechariah), their choice of this place to gather was surely significant. It was morning, and the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives when they began.

There was a lengthy proclamation of the Word (verses 4-5), along with prayer and devotion (verse 6). As Ezra read the text in Hebrew, which by now was only a scholar’s language, running translations were provided in the common spoken language, Aramaic (verses 7-8). Such Aramaic (and later Greek) translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament are known as Targumim or Targums, which in modern biblical research constitute a special area of study.

It was a scene of great emotion, with the experiences of conversion, remorse, and rejoicing mixed together (verses 9-12). All of this took place in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 14-18; cf. John 7:2). The observance of this feast was an initial act in the maintenance of the Law.

Psalms 127: This is the only psalm ascribed to Solomon. The latter being the Bible’s preeminent wise man, this detail may serve to direct our attention to certain “wisdom themes” in the psalm, and, in truth, these are readily discerned. Most particularly there is the theme of the wise householder.

A man did not normally make this pilgrimage to Jerusalem alone, but in the company of his family (cf. Luke 2:41). Indeed, this customary pilgrimage was a significant way of giving a godly identity to a man’s family. It was itself an exercise of “edification,” this word taken in its etymological sense of building or constructing an “edifice.” An important purpose of the pilgrimage was that of “building the house,” the latter term understood as “home” or “household.” Like everything else a family does together, the regular pilgrimage was an exercise in house-building. In fact, this is a psalm about the proper maintenance of the household and, by extension, the city. Any simple reading of, say, Proverbs will show that these preoccupations very much constitute a wisdom theme.

Now the message of Psalm 127 is that all human effort directed toward such wise pursuits must be founded on a firm trust in God’s grace and assistance. Thus, our psalm begins: “Unless the Lord should build the house (Hebrew bayit, Greek oikos), in vain have the builders toiled. Unless the Lord should guard the city, in vain did the guardian keep watch.”

In our present state these tasks, construction and vigilance, are matters of great toil, of course, and frequently of frustration and sadness, because we are children of fallen Adam, who discovered his daily labor impeded by thistle and thorn. Thus, our psalm addresses those “who eat the bread of grief”—that is to say, ourselves, descendants of that man to whom the Lord said, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). We are heirs of that Eve to whom it was declared, “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; / In pain you shall bring forth children” (3:16).

No matter with how much discipline and industry we labor for our family’s bread, the bread itself is always God’s gift, a truth we acknowledge each day when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Likewise, the wearisome toil of the Apostles, fishing all night to no avail, is followed by the sudden and unexpected catch at the Lord’s bidding (cf. Luke 5:5, 6; John 21:3–6). No human effort can hope for much apart from the graciousness of God.

It was important for the fishermen Apostles to learn this truth deeply, for it would have special application to the ministry of the Church. The labor of evangelism, for instance, depends entirely on the grace of God, for it is the Lord who day by day adds to our number such as are being saved (cf. Acts 2:47). The Apostle Paul thus described the ministry at Corinth: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Then, shifting his metaphor to the one used in our psalm, he went on to assert, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building (oikodome)” (1 Cor. 3:6, 9).


Luke 13.22-30: This text does not say that Herod Antipas wanted to kill Jesus; it says rather, “some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” As for the king himself, Luke later informs us that Herod, when “he saw Jesus, was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort” (Luke 23.8 NIV).

Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long “narrative prayer” similar to several psalms that recount Israel’s formative history (e.g., Psalms 78 [77], 105 [104], 106 [105]). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses, which immediately preceded Israel’s entrance into Canaan. From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the themes from the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated.

The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nation’s re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that — a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from.

From Israel’s earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together by history. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers! They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer, as we see in so many of the Psalms devoted to that theme.

Indeed, there is considerable irony in the idea that the fathers are to teach their children in order that they children do not become like the fathers: “For He established a testimony in Jacob, ?And appointed a law in Israel,? Which He commanded our fathers,? That they should make them known to their children; That the generation to come might know them,? The children who would be born,? That they may arise and declare them to their children, That they may set their hope in God,? And not forget the works of God,? But keep His commandments; And may not be like their fathers (Psalm 78:5-8).

Sunday, October 23

Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals—to be, in fact, a people very different from every other. These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), observance of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book.

Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be–namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. God’s distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That adjective had to be a reality, and not just a word.

This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God.

This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, Israel’s spiritual walls had been badly penetrated—by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances. These last were sometimes sealed by marriages joining the people’s leadership to the very worst qualities represented in the other nations.

The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of Israel’s recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive, building walls, establishing clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.

Monday, October 24

Nehemiah 11: We have already seen the theological significance of the sort of census data that we have in this chapter. The present list comprises the names of those within the walls that have been constructed. They are the separated people, the “insiders,” symbolic of the inner identity of the holy nation.

All through these two books we have watched the outsiders trying to get inside–or at least to have access to the inside–exercising a sustained harassment of those inside. We saw the response of Zerubbabel, for instance, to the suggestion, in Ezra 4:1-3, that there be no distinction between insider and outsider, because Israel’s pre-captivity history had already taught him the dangers of not insisting on that distinction. The outsiders, thus rebuffed, have spent the rest of these two books trying to prevent the separating walls from being constructed. As the enemies of Jerusalem’s walls, they were attempting to keep Israel from being Israel. They perceived that the walls symbolized exclusiveness, and they resented being outsiders.

This is a curious phenomenon. Why, after all, should they care? If Israel wanted to be exclusive, why should that preference bother anybody else? In fact, nonetheless, Israel’s exclusiveness was deeply resented. Israel’s claim to be a special and holy people, a claim that laid special moral responsibilities on Israel, was simply more than other people could endure. Consequently, Israel’s adversaries have spent much of these two books in a genuine and aggressive snit.

The one place where Israel was truly threatened, however, was not in its building programs, but in the construction of its families, the formation of its homes. Thus, intermarriage with outsiders, which so incensed both Ezra and Nehemiah, was the single path by which Israel could be most effectively led astray.

These lists of Jewish families, therefore, are very pertinent to the general preoccupation and theme of these two books. These genealogies are spiritual walls, designed to protect the identity of God’s chosen people.

The provision permitting one-tenth of its citizens (chosen by lot) to live in the Holy City established a kind of tithe, as it were, of the entire nation. Those who otherwise chose to live there represented a corresponding “free will offering” of the nation.

Tuesday, October 25

Nehemiah 12: This chapter, which begins with another genealogical list of priests and Levites (verses 1-26), indicates the importance that proper and verifiable “succession” enjoys in the biblical theology of institutional ministry (as distinct from prophetic ministry).

Next comes an account of the solemn dedication of the wall (verses 27-47) and all that that wall represented by way of the symbolisms we have been discussing.

It is reasonable to understand the narrative’s return to first person singular in verse 31 as an indication that we are once again dealing with the memoir of Nehemiah, on which so much of this book is based.

According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, the event narrated in this chapter took place, not in September, but in December, falling very close in the calendar, in fact, to the date of the Maccabees’ own purification of the temple (recorded in 1 Maccabees 4:60). Both events—the dedication of the walls under Nehemiah in the fifth century and the purification of the temple under Judas Maccabaeus in the second century—are called “Hanukkah,” meaning inauguration or dedication (verse 27; John 4:22). (Only the latter event, however, was incorporated into the Jewish liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Jews each December even today.)

Nehemiah saw to it that the city was ritually circled by two simultaneous processions conducted on top of the walls, complete with trumpets. The dedication of the walls is portrayed, therefore, as an event of worship. The simultaneous procession of the two groups, marching in opposite directions, constituted what one commentator calls “a stereophonic presentation.”

Psalms 136: After three introductory verses that call for the praise of God, one may distinguish three stanzas in this psalm. Stanza 1, verses 4–9, we may think of as the “cosmic stanza,” because it deals with God’s work of Creation described in the opening verses of Genesis. This stanza is structured on four verbs (descriptive participles in Hebrew): “does great wonders . . . made the heavens . . . laid out the earth . . . made great lights.” Verses 8 and 9 are a continuation of verse 7 (“the sun to rule by day . . . the moon and stars to rule by night”) and bring the “cosmic” portion of the psalm to a close.

But Creation is the stage on which God makes history, so in stanza 2, verses 10–22, we move from Genesis to Exodus. This we may think of as the “history stanza,” containing material from the Books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua. In this stanza likewise there is a fourfold series of verbs (again, descriptive participles in Hebrew), this time mainly in pairs, that describe God’s redemptive activity for His people: (1) “struck Egypt . . . and brought out Israel;” (2) “divided the Red Sea . . . and made Israel pass through;” (3) “overthrew Pharaoh . . . led His people through the wilderness;” (4) “struck down great kings . . . slew famous kings . . . and gave their land as a heritage.”

Finally, stanza 3, verses 23–26, speaks of God’s continuing care for His people down through the ages. He is not simply a God of the past, but of “us,” the present generation of believers. The last part of the psalm is about here and now: “remembered us in our lowly estate . . . rescued us from our enemies . . . gives food to all flesh.”

Thus, Psalm 136 pursues a threefold theme: creation, deliverance, and the continued care of the redeemed. In this respect, the triple structure of our psalm is identical with that of the Nicene Creed: God made us, God saved us, God stays and provides for us all days unto the end. In the Creed, this structure is explicitly Trinitarian: “one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”

Wednesday, October 26

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).

Psalms 139: The dominant sense of this psalm is similarly conveyed in an ancient Latin prayer translated by Archbishop Cranmer: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid . . .” Observe that the same idea is pronounced three times. This sense of God’s thorough knowledge of us is not something that one wants to let go of. Like a diamond, it is turned in the light, to be seen from several angles, but it is always the same diamond, and the facets of it are interrelated.

And because God’s knowledge of us is complete, it is impossible to escape His gaze. Once again the poet uses several lines to meditate on this fact, moving in several directions, as it were: “If I ascend to heaven [up!], You are there. If I make my bed in the netherworld [down!], behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning [east!] and dwell at the uttermost parts of the sea [west!], even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand hold me.”

Here we are, ten verses into the psalm, and so far there is only a single idea. The poet is still not finished with it, however. He now switches from space imagery to symbolisms of light: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me,’ even the night will be a light around me. Yea, the darkness hides me not from You, but the night shines as the day; to You the darkness and the night are both alike.” Once again he has repeated the same motif several times. God’s knowledge of our hearts is not an idea that he is disposed to let go of.

After these images of space and light, the psalmist moves to a consideration of time. He goes back to his very roots of being, his mysterious formation in the womb: “For You take hold of my inner parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb.” Is that sufficient? Oh, no. He must say it all again: “I will praise You that I am awesomely and wonderfully put together; marvelous are Your works, and my soul knows it well.” Then, using a bold comparison of his mother’s womb to the depths of the earth, he goes on to reflect on his own gestation as a prelude to his coming life: “My substance was not hidden from You, when I was being formed in secret, and strangely put together in the depths of the earth. You saw my substance, as yet unfinished, but all my days were written in Your book before a single one of them came into being.” Even in the deepest past, God knows the future.

Thursday, October 27

Galatians 6.11-18: In this final chapter of Galatians, Paul writes, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Those misguided preachers who insisted on circumcision, Paul declared, did so for fear of suffering “persecution for the cross of Christ.”

For Paul, the Cross—which the world understandably regarded as a mark of great shame—represented the sacrificial love of Christ.

Why did Paul so emphasize the most horrible, least attractive aspect of our redemption—namely, the cross (Romans 6:6; 1 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 5:11; 6:,12,20; Ephesians 2:16; Philippians 2:8; 3:18; Colossians 1:20; 2:14)? Why did he choose to lay so much accent on the shedding of Christ’s blood (Romans 3:25; 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:14,20)?

The reason for this emphasis is not difficult to discern. The sufferings and death of Jesus were—if the expression be allowed—the hard part. These constituted the costly elements of our redemption, that arduous expense of which Paul twice said to the Corinthians, “you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23).

This is why the Apostle Peter wrote of our redemption by “the precious blood of Christ” (1Peter 1:19). Peter’s adjective here, timios, means “costly.” Again, according to John, Jesus redeemed us to God by His blood (Revelation 5:9), washed us from our sins in His blood (Revelation 1:5; 7:14; 12:11). Jesus’ blood was, in short, the price for our redemption.

Although Christians have always known that Jesus was “raised for our justification,” their warmer sentiments have traditionally been directed, rather, to the fact that He “was delivered up for our offenses” (Romans 4:25).

From the very beginning, that is to say, believers have been disposed to dwell in imagination, distress, and deep empathy on the thought of what Jesus endured on their behalf. Poignant and sensitive thought on the Lord’s sufferings has always been an important part of inherited Christian piety. The sacred wounds on His very flesh have ever been treasured in the Christian heart, because He “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

The Cross of Christ, however, is not only the object of Christian devotion, but also the standard of Christian life. In this respect, the Cross represents an affront to a great deal of what the modern world believes to be important. The Cross is a direct challenge to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” It is incomprehensible to Nietzsche’s “will to power.” It directly contradicts the amour propre of Montaigne and Rousseau. It defies the cultivated self-interest of Jeremy Bentham and William James. It plays no role in the Libertarianism of Ludwig von Mises. In short, the Cross is not a standard by which modern people are much disposed to make their decisions, govern their lives, and raise their children.

Friday, 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.

This oracle is internally balanced by “into Zion” (verses 2-3) and “out of Zion” (verses 3-4). The image of flowing upwards indicates that this is not a natural process, so to speak; it does not follow the natural law of gravity. It suggests, rather, the divine magnetism by which God’s reverses the order of nature.

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.

Consequently, this second oracle offers a series of contrasts with the first. Instead of drawing the nations to the ways of God, the prophet describes the actual Jerusalem as conformed to the ways of the nations:

Thus, the first oracle says, “He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” To which the second oracle responds, “They are soothsayers like the Philistines, and they are pleased with the children of foreigners.”

That is to say, instead of the Lord’s people teaching true wisdom to the nations, the Lord’s people have deliberately adopted the wisdom of the other nations. This disposition to conform to the expectations of the world remains, of course, a temptation for the people of God in all generations.

Likewise, instead of conferring spiritual riches on the world—“For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”—the Lord’ city acquires worldly riches for itself: “Their land is also full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures.”

Instead of being a city of peace—“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”—Jerusalem is now allied with the forces of war: “Their land is also full of horses, and there is no end to their chariots.”

Whereas the first oracle spoke of the knowledge of the true God—“Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”— the second oracle speaks of the worship of false gods: “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.”

Isaiah is exhorting the Jerusalem of the mid-eighth century, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

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

Isaiah refers to the Holy Land’s many limestone caves that provided shelter and concealment on occasions of danger: “Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust . . . They shall go into the holes of the rocks, / And into the caves of the earth . . . To go into the clefts of the rocks, / And into the crags of the rugged rocks” (verses 10, 19, 21). These natural formations, in which men sought escape from their enemies (1 Samuel 13:6; 14:11; 22:1; 1 Kings 14:8; Hosea 10:8), will offer scant protection for those who flee from the wrath of God. Such meager refuge for the frightened stands in strong contrast to the pride of spirit that evokes God’s anger.