Friday, June 20
Psalm 88: Psalm 88 (Greek and Latin 87) is possibly the most difficult of the psalms. In any case, it is arguably the darkest. It even stands among the most somber compositions in all of Holy Writ, comparable to the overcast pages of Job and Ecclesiastes. It is appropriately prayed on Fridays, the day of our Lord’s death.
It not being readily apparent, perhaps, how to reconcile such tenebrous tones with evangelical hope, some may judge the sentiments of this psalm too dismal for it to serve as Christian prayer at all. Psalm 88 is not only darksome in its every line; almost alone among the psalms, it even ends on a dark note. Its final line says: “My friend and confrere have You kept afar from me; and my neighbors, because of my distress.” Now, how can that sort of sentiment be the “last word” in a Christian prayer?
But then, on closer inspection, we may observe certain subtler features softening this impression of our psalm. For all its gloom and shadow, for example, is it without significance that Psalm 88 begins by thus addressing the Almighty: “O Lord, the God of my salvation”? The intimacy and quiet hope of this address put one in mind of Psalm 22, in which the crucified Jesus, asking why God has forsaken Him, nonetheless continues to call Him “my God, my God.”
Three further comments seem appropriate regarding this umbrageous aspect of Psalm 88. First, one must bear in mind that, like all the Bible, it comes to us from the Holy Spirit. If death is portrayed in this psalm as a very bad thing, then the Holy Spirit wants us to regard death as a very bad thing. One occasionally meets pagans and unbelievers who avow that they are not afraid to die. Well, this psalm suggests that maybe they should be afraid. In line after line of Psalm 88, a writer under the guidance and impulse of the Holy Spirit says, in the sharpest terms, that death is a most terrifying prospect.
Second, bearing in mind that our fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within us, we should be mightily consoled to think that the Holy Spirit, in this psalm, has made such generous provision for this fleshly side of ourselves. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, gives our fleshly fear its due. If we yet feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit is careful for this fear to find expression in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God, that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear.
Third, Jesus took on Himself, not our pristine, unfallen nature, but our nature as weakened at the ancient tree and throughout the rest of our history. So the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. If, in addition, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must surely imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? Likewise was His perception of death vastly more ample and accurate than our own. And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of the rest of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could.
Finally, it is an ironic feature of liturgical and homiletic history that one expression from this psalm has been consistently used by the Church to refer to the death of Jesus, not as a term of doom but as an emblem of the high triumph and validation inherent in His Cross. That expression is “free among the dead.” In the mystic vision of Holy Church, Jesus was indeed “free among the dead” in the sense that death had no dominion over Him. He was “free” with respect to death, inasmuch as it could not hold Him fast. Reaching to seize Jesus in the moment of His final breath, death found itself, instead, cast down and trampled by the rush of His abundant life crashing into that realm where the grave, hitherto undisputed, had so long held sway. Every antagonist fell beneath His mighty, grinding tread.
And forthwith striding to the nether world, Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Pet. 3:19, 20). To demonstrate, moreover, that our Lord was truly free among the dead, “the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51–53).
Saturday, June 21
2 Samuel 5: This is a very important chapter of political transition. Abner’s adherence to David, followed quickly by the death of Ishbosheth, prepared the way for David’s assumption of authority over all of Israel. His capital still at Hebron, David had reigned over Judah since the Battle of Gilboah in 1000 B.C. The present scene brings us to about 992, some seven and a half years later, when David assumed complete power over Israel and moved his capital to Jerusalem. This recently captured city, because it belonged to no particular tribe of Israelites, would less likely be subject to tribal rule and tribal rivalries. David’s reign at Jerusalem was to last until 961 (verse 5).
A chief reason prompting the northern tribes to place themselves under David’s rule, surely, was the need for a common defense against the Philistines, who had so soundly defeated Saul’s army at Mount Gilboah. Consequently, dealing with those Philistines, now that he has a larger army, becomes David’s first order of business (verses 17-25).
David, having great plans for Jerusalem, established diplomatic and commercial relations with the Phoenicians to Israel’s immediate north (verses 11-12). It was the Phoenicians that would provide the sundry materials for the construction of a new city on that site, including the Temple that David’s son would eventually construct.
There was a special reason that the Phoenicians respected David: His recent defeat of the Philistines had removed them as a naval threat.
Sunday, June 22
Mark 3:7-12: Jesus now makes His third trip to the sea (verse 7). On each such occasion so far, He has called disciples, and this time a great number from a very wide area, from as far south as Idumea (in the Negev Desert) to as far north as Tyre and Sidon (in contemporary Lebanon), and even from east of the Jordan River. Meeting Jesus at seaside should put the reader in mind of Baptism, of course
To this image of the sea, however, Mark now adds that of the boat (mentioned in passing in 1:20), which Jesus uses to escape the press of the crowd (3:9). In the next chapter the boat itself will become the place of catechesis (4:1).
Although Jesus’ human enemies are absent from the present scene, His demonic enemies are once again very much in evidence, and their perception of Jesus has become more defined. Whereas they had earlier called Him “the Holy One of God” (1:24), they now address Him very specifically as “the Son of God” (3:11 and again in 5:7). What the Pharisees cannot bring themselves to see is now becoming unmistakable to the demons. This is the fifth instance in which Mark has spoken of them so far. Their presence will become ever more obvious in the story, until they finally bring about the death of Jesus through the treachery of Judas and the hatred of the Jewish leaders.
Monday, June 23
Acts 12:5-19: From the perspective of chronology, Acts 12 is something of a “flashback.” Luke’s narrative so far has taken us up to the year 46. Now, however, he looks back to the reign of Herod Agrippa I (A.D. 37-44), and more specifically to the end of that reign. He will bring us back to A.D. 46 at the end of this chapter.
For a proper understanding of this story of Peter’s imprisonment, it is important to make note of the time the event happens. Peter is delivered from prison at the Passover, the very night commemorating Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. As the angel of the Lord came through the land that night to remove Israel’s chains by slaying the first-born of Israel’s oppressors, so the delivering angel returns to strike the fetters from Peter’s hands and lead him forth from the dungeon.
And as Israel’s earlier liberation foreshadowed that Paschal Mystery whereby Jesus our Lord led all of us from our servitude to the satanic Pharaoh by rising from the dead, so we observe aspects of the Resurrection in Peter’s deliverance from prison: Like the tomb of Jesus, Peter’s cell is guarded by soldiers (verses 4,6). That cell, again like the tomb of Jesus, is invaded by a radiant angelic presence, and the very command to Peter is to “arise” (anasta —verse 7).
It is no wonder that in regarding Rafael’s famous chiaroscuro depiction of this scene in the apartments in the Vatican (over the window in the room called “the Stanza of Heliodorus”), the viewer must look very closely, for his first impression is that he is looking at a traditional portrayal of the Lord’s Resurrection. And what is the Church doing during all that night of the Passover? Praying (verses 5,12); indeed, it is our first record of a Paschal Vigil Service. Peter’s guards, alas, must share the fate of Egypt’s first-born sons (verse 19).
Tuesday, June 24
The Birth of John the Baptist: Although our Lord said that “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11), only Luke thought to provide us with the name of the woman who gave John birth.
In fact, Luke went into some detail to tell of that lady named Elizabeth and the circumstances surrounding her unexpected conception of a son in her advanced years. The Angel Gabriel, who had been somewhat quiet in Israel after the days of Daniel, appeared to Elizabeth’s husband and predicted the pregnancy (Luke 1:13).
Moreover, God clearly intended to leave a special mark on John even before his birth. Six months into the gestation, Elizabeth received another visitor, this one a human visitor: her young kinswoman from Galilee named Mary. At Mary’s greeting, John’s mother sensed another Presence, as “the babe leaped in her womb” (1:41). Mary, in fact, like a new Ark of the Covenant, bore within her body God’s newly incarnate Son, whose Father chose her greeting at that moment as the occasion to sanctify the unborn John the Baptist. This event fulfilled an earlier prediction of Gabriel with respect to John: “He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (1:15). In drawing our attention to John’s prophetic consecration before his birth, Luke portrays him in the likeness of the Prophet Jeremiah, to whom God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; / Before you were born I sanctified you; / I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
If John resembled Jeremiah, however, his resemblance to the Prophet
Elijah was even more pronounced. Once again, it was the Angel Gabriel, who used of John the very words with which the Prophet Malachi foretold the return of Elijah: “And he 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” (Luke 1:16–17; Malachi 4:5–6).
Since Elijah’s return had been predicted in the last of the Old
Testament’s prophetic books, there was considerable expectation on the
matter, even among the Lord’s Apostles (Matthew 17:10). Although John himself denied that he really was Elijah in a literal sense (John 1:21), he surely felt some affinity to that earlier prophet; he even dressed like him (Matthew 3:4 [and 11:8]; 2 Kings 1:8).
Whatever John felt about the matter, nonetheless, Jesus Himself asserted that “Elijah has come already,” and, when He asserted this, “the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:12–13). John’s affinity to Elijah was more than haberdashery, however, for his appearance in this world introduced the days in which “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:12–14).
Wednesday, June 25
Acts 12:20—13:3: This scene of Herod meeting with the Phoenician delegation is also described by another writer contemporary to the event, Flavius Josephus, who includes a gripping depiction of Herod’s silver robe glistening in the sunlight. Like Luke, Josephus mentions their addressing him as a “god.” The action of the angel who kills Herod Agrippa I in verse 23 stands in contrast to the angelic liberation of Peter, narrated earlier in this chapter. The description of Herod’s death is usefully compared to the death of the blaspheming Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 2 Maccabees 9:5-28.
Immediately after telling the story, Luke takes us forward again to A.D. 46. Barnabas and Saul, having delivered the collection for the famine to the church at Jerusalem (11:30), leave to return to Antioch, taking with them John Mark, a younger kinsman of Barnabas (12:25; cf. Colossians 4:10).
Then begins the story of Paul’s three missionary journeys, which will occupy the next several chapters. We observe that Antioch has now risen to the status of a missionary center (which it has remained unto this day). Indeed, the very severe political climate at Jerusalem in the late 60s, culminating in the destruction of the city by the Romans in the year 70, caused Antioch to surpass Jerusalem as a missionary center in the East, rather much as Rome became in the West, and, somewhat later, Alexandria in Egypt.
In the year 325, these three churches (Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch) were made the patriarchal churches, each having oversight of the other churches in those three continents that shape the Mediterranean Sea.
Thursday, June 26
Mark 3:20-30: In response to His exorcisms in Chapters 1 and 3, Jesus’ critics advance the accusation that He is using demonic force to expel demons.
The Lord’s answer breaks into three parts: First, their accusation violates logic, implying that the demonic world had radically turned on itself (verses 23-26). Second, the expulsion of the demons is much more plausibly explained by their having met a superior force (verse 27). Third, the accusation itself is an act of blasphemy, because it ascribes to the demons what is in truth accomplished by the Holy Spirit.
Such a confusion of light and darkness indicates total intellectual and moral depravity, so radical a commitment to evil as to preclude repentance. The scribes’ accusation of blasphemy (2:7) is thus turned back on them (3:29).
In the course of His argument, Jesus uses certain plays on Aramaic words that are rather lost in translation (whether English or the inspired Greek!). For example, the “house” in verse 25 is zebul in Aramaic, which is part of the name “Beelzebul” (“lord of the house”). Similarly, the verb “divide” (verses 24-26) is pharas, which is the root of the word “Pharisee.” Jesus’ response thus hints at the ironic question, “Has Satan gone Pharisee?”
Friday, June 27
Mark 3:31-35: The Lord’s own blood relatives have already been introduced in a negative way in 3:21, where they were said to think Jesus “out of His mind” (exseste; cf. the identical assessment of the Apostle Paul in Acts 26:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:13).
In the present scene these relatives are endeavoring to reach Jesus, but the press of the crowd, as seems often to have been the case (cf. 2:2; 5:31), prevents their entrance into the house where He is teaching. They remain “outside” (3:32). Mark thus introduces the distinction between “outsiders” (hoi exso) and “insiders” (hoi esso), which will function in Jesus’ teaching in parables. The “outsiders” are those to whom it has not “been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God” (4:11). In the present scene the Lord’s own relatives, because they have not yet understood Him, fall into that category.
Jesus’ real family, He says, is made up of those who do the will of God (3:35). Fortunately, as we know, even the Lord’s relatives will become “insiders” to the kingdom in due course (cf. Acts 1:14), but the principle remains that true kinship in Jesus is a matter of the Spirit and not of the flesh.