Friday, August 8

2 Peter 2:12-22: Of the two Old Testament accounts given of Balaam (Numbers 22-24 [cf. Joshua 24:9-10; Micah 6:5; Deuteronomy 23:3-6] and Numbers 31), only the second portrays him in a bad light, as responsible for tempting the Israelites into lust and apostasy in their encounter with the Midianites. For this sin he is killed in Israel’s war with Midian (cf. Numbers 31:8; Joshua 13:22).

Peter’s negative comments on Balaam in the present text are similar to those found in rabbinical sources and in the Jewish philosopher Philo. His foul counsel to the Midianites, whereby young Israelite men were brought to their spiritual peril, was taken by early Christian writers as symbolic of the deceptions of false teachers. One finds this perspective expressed, not only here in Peter, but also in Jude 11 and Revelation 2:14. Balaam is the very image of the deceitful teacher, and hardly any other group is criticized more often or more severely in Holy Scripture than the false teacher. One finds this condemnation in Peter, Jude, James, Paul, and John.

In the present chapter the false teachers are singled out for deceiving the newly converted (verses 2,14,20-22), an especially vulnerable group of believers, who are not yet mature in solid doctrine. These latter, in the very fervor of their conversion, are often seduced by unreliable teachers who prey on their inexperience. In the mouths of false teachers, little distinction is made between liberty and libertinism (verse 19; 1 Peter 2:16; Romans 6:16; John 8:34), and they use the enthusiasm of the newcomer to change conversion to subversion.

Saturday, August 9

2 Peter 3:1-9:  Peter begins this chapter with an oblique reference to his earlier epistle. In verse 2, read “your apostles” instead of “us apostles.” The singular significance of this verse is its juxtaposition of the New Testament apostles with the Old Testament prophets, an important step in recognizing the apostolic writings as inspired Holy Scripture. In 3:16, indeed, Peter does give such recognition to the letters of the apostle Paul. Both groups of men, Peter says, are being disregarded by those who scoff at the doctrine of the Lord’s return (verse 4).

Since so many of the earliest Christians were of the opinion that the Lord would return during their own lifetime, His not doing so became for some an excuse for unbelief. It was only an excuse, however, not a justification, and Peter judged such unbelief to be prompted, not by what are called “sincere intellectual difficulties,” but by the lustful desires of those who wanted an excuse for unbelief (verse 3). Later in the century, Clement of Rome would address that same problem when he wrote to the Corinthians (23.3).

That heresy, which asserted that the “integrity” of the natural order precluded its being invaded from without by divine influences, rather curiously resembled the modern ideology of Naturalism, with which contemporary apologists must contend.

Such a misinterpretation of the world, Peter wrote, is willful (verse 5); it is deliberately chosen, not on the basis of evidence, but in order to loose those who hold it from accounting to a final judgment by God. That misinterpretation was also based, Peter went on to say, on a misunderstanding of what is meant by “last times.” This designation “last” is qualitative, not quantitative. It is not concerned with “how much,” but “of what sort.” The “last times” are not quantified; their limit is not known to us, but that limit is irrelevant to their quality. The last times are always the last times, no matter how long they last. Since the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are always within the eleventh hour, and this designation means only that it is the hour before the twelfth; it can last as long as God intends it to.

Sunday, August 10

2 Peter 3:10-18: Since only God knows the length of the eleventh hour, the Lord’s return will confound all human calculations of its timing. The simile of the thief in the night, for instance, must not be taken literally, because it is never nighttime everywhere at the same time, and the Bible contains no hint that the Lord will return to the earth by following the sequence of its appointed time zones!

This comparison with the thief’s nocturnal entrance was doubtless common among the early Christians (Matthew 24:43; Luke 12:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:2; Revelation 3:3; 16:5). It will all happen with a “rush,” this onomatopoeia corresponding to the Greek verb rhoizedon in verse 10. Watchfulness, therefore, and a holy life are the proper responses to our true situation in this world (verse 11; Matthew 24:42-51; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). Both heaven and earth will be renewed (verse 13; Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; Revelation 21:1; cf. Romans 8:19-22). 

The expression “without spot and without blame” in verse 14 (aspiloi kai amometoi) contains the negative forms of the adjectives describing the false teachers in 2: 13 (spiloi kai momoi). Peter’s reference to Paul indicates his familiarity with more than one Pauline epistle and probably suggests that Paul’s letters were already being gathered into collections and copied. Peter likewise testifies to the difficulties attendant on the understanding of Paul’s message. Christian history bears a similar witness, alas, in the modern divisions that have arisen among Christians over their differing interpretations of Paul. Paul himself was aware, even then, that some Christians were distorting his thought (Romans 3:8).

Monday, August 11

Acts 24:1-9: Paul now makes his defense before an official representative of the Roman government. To be his prosecutor, the Sanhedrin put forward a trained orator, Tertullus, who begins his argument by attempting to ingratiate Felix. He is shameless. When he credits Felix’s administration with the blessings of peace (24:2), for instance, the statement is true only in the sense that Felix had rather ruthlessly suppressed rebel uprisings and acts of terrorism (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 2.13.2 [252]). Tertullus diplomatically passes over those activities of Felix which effectively fomented rebellion and terrorism, those displays of his administration’s rapacity and harshness that would in due course lead to the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

Tertullus, aware of the attitude of Felix toward anything smacking of sedition, endeavors to portray Paul as a sort of revolutionary. The allegedly seditious party represented by Paul and here called the Nazarenes, is described as a “heresy” (24:5; cf. 24:14; 26:5; 28:22). This is hardly the first occasion on which Paul is portrayed as a trouble-maker (cf. 16:20; 17:6).

Tuesday, August 12

2 Kings 11: One of the bloodiest, most distressing stories in the Bible records how Athaliah, the gebirah or queen mother of the slain King Ahaziah, seized the throne of Judah in 841 B.C. and promptly ordered the murder of her own grandchildren in order to guarantee her hold on that throne (2 Kings 11; 2 Chronicles 22). Holy Scripture simply records the event, without accounting for Athaliah’s motive in this singular atrocity.

Although such savagery from a daughter of Jezebel might not be surprising, Athaliah’s action was puzzling from a political perspective, nonetheless, and this in two respects. First, as the story’s final outcome would prove, her dreadful deed rendered Athaliah extremely unpopular in the realm, and her possession of the crown, therefore, more precarious. Second, had she preserved the lives of her grandchildren, instead of killing them, Athaliah’s real power in the kingdom would likely have been enhanced in due course, not lessened. As the gebirah, she might have remained the de facto ruler of Judah unto ripe old age. Just what, then, did the lady have in mind?

The historian Josephus, the first to speculate on this question, ascribed Athaliah’s action to an inherited hatred of the Davidic house. It was her wish, said he, “that none of the house of David should be left alive, but that the entire family should be exterminated, that no king might arise from it later” (Antiquities 9.7.1).

The playwright Racine developed this very plausible explanation in his Athalie, where the evil queen exclaims, David m’est en horreur, et les fils de ce Roi / Quoique nés de mon sang, sont étrangers pour moi–“David I abhor, and the sons of this king, though born of my blood, are strangers to me” (2.7.729-730).

Following Racine, this interpretation was taken up in Felix Mendelssohn’s opera Athaliah, which asserts that the vicious woman acted in order that keine Hand ihr nach der Krone greifen,/ Kein König aus dem Stamme Davids fürder / Den Dienst Jehovas wieder schützen könne–that “no hand could reach out for her crown, nor king henceforth from David’s line preserve again the service of Jehovah” (First Declamation).

Racine also ascribed to Athaliah a second motive, namely her sense of duty (j’ai cru le devoir faire) to protect the realm from the various enemies that surrounded it. Indeed, she boasts that her success in this effort was evidence of heaven’s blessing on it (2.5.465-484).  However, since it is unclear how the slaughter of her grandchildren contributed to the regional peace that Athaliah claimed as the fruit of her wisdom (Je jouissais en paix du fruit de ma sagesse), this explanation is not so plausible as the first.

The third motive ascribed by Racine seems more reasonable and is certainly more interesting—namely, that Athaliah acted out of vengeance for the recent killing of her mother and the rest of her own family. Deranged by wrath and loathing, she imagined that the slaughter of her posterity avenged the slaughter of her predecessors: Oui, ma juste fureur, et j’en fais vanité, / A vengé mes Parents sur ma posterité–“Yes, my just wrath, of which I am proud, has avenged my parents on my offspring” (2.7.709-710).

This explanation, which I believe to be correct, makes no rational sense, however, except on the supposition that Athaliah blamed Israel’s God for what befell her own family. In attacking David’s house, she thought to attack David’s God, whom she accuses of l’implacable vengeance (2.7.727).

In this respect, the third motive of Racine’s Athaliah is the goal of the first. That is to say, the hateful queen seeks to destroy David’s house in order to render void God’s promises given through the prophets, especially the promise of the Messiah that would come from David’s line, ce Roi promis aux Nations, / Cet Enfant de David, votre espoir, votre attente–“that King promised to the nations, that Child of David, your hope, your expectation.”

The queen’s vengeance, which later appears in Handel’s oratorio Athalia, correctly indicates the Christian meaning, the sensus plenior, of the Old Testament story. Waging war on great David’s greater Son, Athaliah foreshadowed yet another usurper of the Davidic throne, hateful King Herod, who likewise ordered a large massacre of little boys in a vain effort to retain the crown that did not belong to him.

Wednesday, August 13

Psalm 101: This psalm is a hymn of dedication and promise on the part of God’s servant, and its reference to the punishment of evildoers has prompted some critics to see in it the kind of righteous political program possibly associated with a royal enthronement. Indeed, the psalm is ascribed to David.

Along with such a political reading of the text, nonetheless, this psalm applies also to the humbler, yet perhaps more substantial task of the governance of one’s own home. Twice here we find the expression “my house”—“I have walked in the innocence of my heart, in the midst of my house” and “The man who practices arrogance will not lodge in the midst of my house.” This psalm may be read, then, as a text concerned with the godly governance of a man’s household.

A house is an intentionally structured reality; it is quite different from dwelling in a cave or abiding under the branches of a tree. A house is designed; it is shaped according to a pattern, and the integrity of the house depends on its adherence to principles and laws. And what is true of the house is true likewise of the household, which is also structured according to principles and laws.

A household, moreover, is “hierarchical,” a Greek word indicating that its structure, its ordering, is sacral and stands under the aegis of heavenly prerogative. Founded on divinely sanctioned authority, families are hierarchical realities. Family homes are eminently prescriptive institutions, the loci of inherited wisdom and the transmission of identity and culture. It is in homes that we learn to speak, and therefore to think. It is in homes that we learn to relate to other people and are thus cultured into human beings.

Proper, godly governance of one’s house is called “economics,” another Greek word that literally means “house law.” Perhaps most often understood nowadays solely in terms of the material resources of a household, economics certainly means a great measure more. A house is a human institution, after all, and a properly human existence involves dimensions far beyond the maintenance of physical and material conditions. If man is truly to be man, he does not live by bread alone. Indeed, with respect to those material and physical things needed for the household, our unique Economist affirmed that, if we will seek first the Kingdom of God and His justice, all these other things would be given to us as well. The standing or falling of houses has less to do with the material than with the moral, for the pursuit of justice is the true foundation of a house.

So, what sorts of things are banished from this well-ordered house? “Transgressions” (parabaseis) and “any unlawful deed” (pragma paranomon). And who will not be welcomed in this house? The one “who slanders his neighbor in secret.” And just who will not be invited to sit at table in this house? “The man of proud eye and greedy heart.” This is not, in other words, an “open house”; the door thereto is narrow, and there are specified conditions for entrance. A house is a measured structure, and there is no such thing as measure without the acceptance of limits.

The house in this psalm is also, of course, the house of God, the great hall of the supper of the Lamb, to which, once again our Economist tells us, many are called but few are chosen. This psalm describes what it means not to be clothed in that proper wedding garment, the wearing of which saves a man from being ejected into the outer darkness: “No perverse heart has been my companion. . . . The man who speaks unjust things will not abide before my eyes.”

If the door to the house is narrow, so is the way that leads to life. Twice this psalm speaks of walking “in the blameless path” (en hodo amomo). Indeed, this is how the psalm begins: “Mercy and judgment will I chant to You, O Lord. I will sing (psalo), and I will understand (syneso) in the blameless path.” In this line we are presented with a reliable pattern for prayer and the life of virtuous striving. The singing here has specific reference to psalmody, which is to be done, says our psalm, with understanding (cf., too, 1 Cor. 14:15—“I will also sing with the understanding.”). And whence comes this understanding? From walking blamelessly. The path to the understanding of prayer is the narrow way of virtuous struggle.

(From Christ in the Psalms, by P. H. Reardon)
Thursday, August 14

2 Kings 13: The prophet Elisha is mainly remembered as a thaumaturge, a worker of wonders, not only during his lifetime, but even after his death. The wise man Sirach later made interesting comments on the incident recorded in today’s reading from 2 Kings 13, which speaks of a dead man who was revived as his body came into contact with the bones of Elisha (Sirach 48:12-16).

According to Sirach, that event was not only a miracle (terata . . .  thavmasia ta erga), but also a prophecy, Indeed, Elisha’s “body prophesied” (eprophetevsen to soma). Such a prophecy, mentioned immediately before Israel’s destruction by Assyria in 722, was important to Sirach, because it pointed to the coming restoration of the Chosen People.

In fact, that older story of the dead man’s revival deserves a second look, in light of Sirach’s comment on it. The original account says that on touching the bones of Elisha, the dead man “lived and rose on his feet” (my literal translation of ezesen kai aneste epi tous podas avtou in the LXX text of 2 Kings 13:21). This description is almost verbatim with what the prophet Ezekiel portrays in his famous vision of the dry bones: “they lived and stood on their feet” (ezesan kai estesan epi ton podon avton–Ezekiel 37:10).

In Ezekiel’s original context this resurrection of Israel’s slain was a prophecy of the people’s restoration after the Babylonian Captivity. In its larger canonical context, it also prophesied God’s victory over death in the Resurrection of Christ, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Sirach, perhaps reading the story of the risen dead man through the prophecy of Ezekiel, regarded that miracle as a foretelling of what lay ahead for the People of God. In the next chapter, in fact, where Sirach does treat of Ezekiel (49:9), the reference is followed immediately by the wish that the bones of the Twelve Minor Prophets should be revivified.

Friday, August 15

John 2:1–12: We come now to Cana, the third Galilean town mentioned in John (cf. 1:44–45) and the place where Jesus did “the first of His signs.” In this way “He manifested His glory, and His disciples came to believe in Him.” That is to say, Cana is the place where the Church was first formed, that initial body of believers to whom the Lord revealed His glory.

We observe that His Mother, His relatives, and His disciples were all present (verses 11–12; compare Acts 1:13–14). These gather at Capernaum, the fourth Galilean city named by John (verse 12).

In this story of Cana, John introduces the Mother of Jesus. She appears only here and at the foot of the Cross (19:26–27). These two portrayals, both found only in John among the evangelists, have several things in common. First, Mary does not appear in John’s Gospel outside of these two places. Second, in both places she is called only "the mother of Jesus" and is never named. Third, in each instance Jesus addresses his mother as "Woman" (gyne). Fourth, in both cases a "new family" is formed—in the first scene by the wedding itself, and in the second scene by a kind of adoption in which the beloved disciple "took her to his own home."

John’s "mother of Jesus" thus plays an important part near the beginning of his account of the Lord’s ministry, in "the first of his signs," wherein he "manifested his glory" at Cana (John 2:11). In the dialogue leading up to this manifestation, Jesus seems at first to bridle at his mother’s hint that he relieve the shortage of wine at the wedding feast. He explains to her, "My hour has not yet come" (2:4).

These words closely tie this scene at Cana to the scene at the cross later on. When the "hour" of the passion does finally come, it will once again be in reference to the manifestation of Jesus’ glory: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you" (John 17:1). John uses similar language of Jesus’ mother, telling us that it was "from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (19:27). When the hour arrives for the King to be identified upon the throne of the cross (19:19), John is the only one of the evangelists to speak of the King’s mother standing beside it (19:26).
John 2:12–25: This is the first of three times John speaks of the Passover (verse 13; cf. 6:4; 11:55). John’s triple reference to the Pascha has always prompted Christians to picture Jesus’ public ministry as lasting three years. Since we know Jesus was about thirty years old when that ministry began (Luke 3:23), it is commonly calculated our Lord lived on earth to age thirty-three.