Friday, October 17

Philippians 4:10-23: Right from the beginning Paul had experienced the generosity of the Macedonian Christians (verses 15-16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5), and now once again, a further opportunity being provided, they have not failed him (verses 10,18).

For his part, Paul has learned to be content with whatever circumstances the Lord sees fit to provide for him (verses 11-12), confident that he can do all things in Christ who strengthens him (verse 13; 2 Corinthians 12:10; 2 Timothy 4:17; Acts 18:9-10). This is not self-sufficiency but an ongoing dependence on Christ, a difference that separates Christian contentment from Stoic contentment.

We observe that Paul employs the language of sacrifice to describe the generous gift of the Philippians (verse 18; Ephesians 5:28; Romans 12:1).

Following the doxology that could form an appropriate ending to the epistle (verse 20), there is added a series of personal salutations which we are probably correct in suspecting to have been written in Paul’s own hand (verses 21-23). This interpretation corresponds to what we know to have been Paul’s practice (cf. 2 Thessalonians3:17; Galatians 6:11; 1 Corinthians 16:21; Philemon 9).

The reference to “Caesar’s house” (Kaisaros oikia—verse 22) means those who work for the Roman government. (The expression “house of” with the name of a king normally carries this meaning in Holy Scripture, as it does throughout the ancient literature of the Middle East.) Ephesus, as the regional capital of Asia, was the site of a great deal of Roman officialdom (Acts 19:38), and Paul’s mention of “saints” inside it shows that some Christians were already finding their place in the Roman government. This is ironical, of course, for this was the same government that was keeping Paul imprisoned. Indeed, it may have been Paul’s own example that led to the conversion of these people (1:13).

Nehemiah 4: Meanwhile the frustrated opposition party was holding an impromptu powwow about what to do next (verses 1-2). Sanballat was aware that the emperor had forbidden the building of the walls, but here was the highest non-royal official in the realm, with full knowledge and cooperation of the governing satrap, doing that very thing. The situation left him angry and confused. He dared not complain to the capital, of course, because Persian monarchs tended to react in dangerous ways if stimulated by incautious questioning (cf. Ezra 6:11), to say nothing of deliberate provocation (cf. Esther 7:10). Nehemiah was completely familiar with the workings of the court, whereas Sanballat and the opposition folks were just a bunch of yokels. They found themselves now completely out of their political depth.

Their frustration could be expressed only in ridicule (verse 3), but their mirth rang hollow, because the wall in question was growing huge. Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations show it to have been 2.75 meters thick—roughly nine feet—and in Chapter 12 we will read of a lengthy dedicatory procession conducted on top of the wall!

Since Sanballat’s people could do nothing in the open, their opposition took the form of surprise raids by small gangs. The list of opponents in verse 7 indicates that Jerusalem was literally surrounded by enemies. There follows (verses 13-23) an account of how the builders, like Minute Men, simultaneously prayed and defended themselves during the construction. Verse 10 seems to be a snatch of a song that they sang while working.

Much of this chapter is resonant with the themes and vocabulary of Israel’s ancient warfare stories from the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges: the threat of the enemies (verses 7-8), the strategic disadvantage of Israel (verses 10,13), the preliminary prayer before arming (verse 9), the arrangement of the forces by families (verse 13), the declaration of divine help (verse 20), the summons to bravery and fidelity (verse 14), the Lord’s frustration of the enemies (verse 15), and the bugle call to battle (verses 18-19).

Saturday, October 18

Nehemiah 5: This chapter, which is out of historical sequence, serves partly an apologetic purpose: Prior to narrating the attacks that his enemies were to make on his moral character, he inserts this incident (from a later time) in order to demonstrate his integrity and sense of justice. In this incident, the problem faced by Nehemiah was an internal one, the exploitation of the builders during this time of crisis. Profiteers were taking extreme advantage of the situation (verses 1-5).

Contrary to the radically selfish principles of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Objectivist philosophies, a healthy society cannot be founded solely on private enterprise and individual rights; government has appropriate functions, after all, beyond those of the common defense, domestic safety, and the safeguarding of private property. It is also a biblically warranted function of government to discourage greed, rapacity, and the taking of undue advantage. The evil we see in this chapter indicates that ancient Jerusalem had its own equivalents of Jeremy Bentham, Ludwig Von Mises, and Ayn Rand. Unbridled greed was producing once again the social order of Cain, as described in Genesis 4.

Nehemiah faced the crisis resultant from a completely selfish atmosphere, aggravated by the extra burden of the labor on the walls and a crop failure. Loan sharks, prohibited by the Mosaic Law from taking interest, were requiring exorbitant rights of usufruct and a disproportionate collateral, which, in the end, enslaved the children dispossessed by such abuses. All of this activity, unfortunately, was within the letter of the law, a form of “legal injustice.”

Nehemiah’s first reaction was visceral (verse 6), but he gave himself time to cool down and reflect (verse 7), pondering which path might be the most effective to take. Then, skipping steps one and two in the procedure listed in Matthew 18:15-17, he jumped immediately to step three in the procedure. Since the offense was public, the confrontation would have to be public (cf. Galatians 2:11-14).

Nehemiah summoned a general assembly, in which to face the offenders with a larger group of people rallied on his own side. He easily reduced the offenders to silence (verses 7-8), not by appealing to the letter of the law (for the letter of the law in this instance was not on his side), still less by invoking something so nebulous as “the rights of the poor” (because the poor usually have more needs than they have rights), but by the experience of brotherhood (“your brethren”).

Having reduced the offenders to silence, he proceeded to shame them into doing the decent thing (verses 9-11). He used his office, that is to say, not to maintain the letter of the law, but to establish justice. Clearly he regarded government as responsible for setting right certain economic wrongs born of an excessive and oppressive system of private enterprise that was able to stay legal while remaining unjust. In this respect, Nehemiah was clearly acting on impulses spawned of the great social prophets three centuries earlier: Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. Those powerless men decried economic injustice, but Nehemiah, himself in a powerful position, was able to do something about it. His efforts were successful (verses 12-13).

Nehemiah stayed on at Jerusalem until 433 (verse 14), informing us that he was not a half-bad governor (verses 15-19). The next chapter will jump back to the sequence expected at the end of the incident with which the present chapter began. Having demonstrated his integrity in the present chapter, he is now ready to speak of the calumnies of his enemies.

Sunday, October 19

James 1:12-20: The blessedness of the man who endures trial is related to that man’s love for God (verse 12). Love, that is to say, is really what is on trial; it is the reason for the endurance of the trial. This love for God, the love that is tried, is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “. . . we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

God puts His faithful ones through trial, but He does not “tempt” them in the sense of enticing them to sin (verse 13). God does not “tempt” in that sense. When man is enticed toward sin, it has to do with his own passions, his disposition to sin (verse 14). The source of this sort of temptation is internal to man; even the world and Satan cannot get at a man except through his own inner disposition. (Thus, Jesus was not “tempted” in this sense. Jesus was certainly put to the trial, and Satan used every effort to entice Him, but Jesus had no inner disposition to sin.)

Those who suffer temptation may be plagued by the thought that God has abandoned them, that He has forgotten them, that He no longer holds them in regard. To address this erroneous thought James insists that God is unchanging toward those that love Him. Unlike the lights in the heavens, the Father of these lights, their Creator (Genesis 1:13-18), does not diminish in His gifts to those who love Him. Indeed, James has already mentioned that God “gives to all liberally and without reproach” (verse 5).

This Father of lights has become our Father by begetting us in the Word (verse 18). Peter says the same, when he describes believers as “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).

Nehemiah 6: The local opposition to Nehemiah’s building project next took a new and unbelievably clumsy tack, which he resisted with high disdain (verses 1-4). Failing this, his opponents then sent a letter with an implicit threat of denunciation (verses 5-7), but Nehemiah remained unimpressed (verse 8).

The story found here in verses 10-13 is not necessarily part of the chronological sequence but may have been put here because of its affinity to the two preceding stories.

Even before Shemaiah was in the employ of his opponents, Nehemiah smelled something wrong. He sensed that he was being invited to take a step he would regret. We observe him here, nonetheless, maintaining his composure under pressure, controlling his emotions, especially the emotion of fear, so as not to obscure his assessment of the situation (verse 14).

The wall, begun in the late summer, was finished fifty-two days later, in mid October (verse 15). About six months had passed since Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and less than a year since his friends had come with sad news to Babylon. Once again, Sanballat and his friends learned of the wall’s completion only by rumor (verse 16).

Monday, October 20

Genesis 27:30-40: Both Esau and the younger son in today’s parable were careless about their inheritance. Esau sold his inheritance for a bowl of soup, and today’s younger son spent his in riotous living in a far country.

In due course both young fools came to regret their mistakes. It is in respect to those regrets, however, that our comparison between Esau and today’s younger son must be modified into a significant contrast:

Whereas Esau simply regretted his loss, this younger son actually repented of his sin. The difference between these two men illustrates the difference between regret and repentance, because they are certainly not the same thing. Esau finally threw the blame for his dilemma on his brother Jacob, but the Prodigal Son blamed no one but himself, The Gospel story tells us, “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17), and, coming to himself, he realized that he was the one who had sinned, and that the responsibility was entirely his own.

Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (verses 6-72). For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2. The difference between that earlier list and the present list is one of purpose and context. The list in Ezra 2 established the continuity with Israel’s past, especially with a view to validating the claims of the returning exiles with respect to their possession of the Holy Land. In the present chapter, however, the list is set in the context of Jerusalem’s new enclosure. It is the census of a city, not a mere list of returning exiles. It is a municipal instrument, which will serve as a format for taxation and civic service. It is a document of the community’s restoration and renewal. Consequently, it is included between the completion of the walls (verses 1-3) and the ceremony of renewal (chapters 8—10).

The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah.

All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions which, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25). Surely, however, those emotions did much to drive his highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11).

Trained as an executive and diplomat, Nehemiah’s rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his fears, they were under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19; 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39).

Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan.

In the next chapter our attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous period.

Tuesday, October 21

James 1:21-27: James devotes this next section to the proper hearing and doing of this “implanted” Word (verse 21).

First, there are certain moral and ascetical conditions preparatory to receiving this Word. Although the inseminated ground produces fruit of itself (avtomate [see the root of “automatically”?] he ge karpophorei—Mark 4:28), this ground must be prepared to receive it. This is the burden of the Lord’s most famous parable, the story of the sower who sowed the seed on various sorts of soil, with greatly varying results.

Thus, says James, the man that would properly listen to God’s Word must be, first of all, a listener. He must be slow to speak, especially purging his heart of anger (verses 19-20) and foul thought (verse 21; cf. Sirach 5:11-13; 20:5-8). In chapters 3 and 4 James will return to this theme of tongue control.

Second, the proper moral climate for attending to God’s Word is “meekness” (praütes—verse 21), the notable quality of Jesus’ own heart (Matthew 11:29).

Third, the Word must be received in active obedience, whereby the listeners become “doers of the Word”—literally “poets of the Word” (poietai Logou—verse 22; cf. Romans 2:13). If this is not the case, they “deceive” themselves (paralogizomenoi), especially with a deception of the heart (apaton kardian—verse 26).

We appreciate James’ warning that hearing the Word of God may be an occasion of spiritual danger, particularly the peril of self-deception. The major danger faced by the Bible-reader is that of imagining himself to be a religious person (verse 26). Such a one must learn to bridle his tongue, for he may not be who he thinks he is.

It is not unlikely that James has in mind here the newly converted Bible-reader who is too anxious to display his recently discovered wisdom by proclaiming it to others. What such a man must first learn to do is carry out the most basic, simplest, humblest mandates of the Gospel—working charity toward the misfortunate and purging the worldliness from his heart (verse 27).

Fourth, the study of God’s Word is the school of self-knowledge, because it serves as a mirror to the soul itself (verses 23-24). Thus, the man who studies God’s Word assiduously looks into a mirror, in which he learns his own blemishes reflected there. This will be the case, however, only if the hearer of the Word comes to it in the active obedience of faith (verse 25). He must not take leave of the Word too soon but “continue” (parameinas) in it.

Fifth, the “doer of the Word” must also be the “doer of the work” (poietes ergou—verse 25). As we shall see in the next chapter, James rejects any theory of justification that is not emphatic about the necessity of works. These works are what constitutes a man’s religion (threskia—verses 26,27).

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.

Wednesday, October 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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). /blockquote/>

Thursday, 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.

Friday, 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.