Friday, October 31
Isaiah 8: Isaiah must take a large tablet, something that could serve as a conspicuous sign, and write on it in clear letters, “concerning Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, four words meaning “Quick-Spoil-Hurry-Booty” (verse 1). If this seems mysterious to us, it was no less so to Isaiah’s contemporaries. Witnesses to the event were recorded (verse 2), who could vouch for the date of the inscription.
Later, Isaiah is instructed to make this strange inscription the name of his second son (verse 3), who becomes an enfleshment of the prophet’s spoken message of impending doom (verse 4). When his prophecy has been fulfilled by the Assyrian invasion, the two witnesses could testify to the date of the prophecy. This prophetic act forms a striking but contrasting parallel to the Emmanuel prophecy in the preceding chapter.
In 734 Tiglath-Pileser, who had marched across the Fertile Crescent, turned his forces south, along the sea coast, to check the Egyptians, who might have been tempted to march north and intervene. He next neutralized King Hosea of Israel, depopulating a large section of Galilee. Finally, he turned his attention to Syria, which fell in 732.
Shiloh (verse 6) was the stream that flowed quietly from the spring of Gihon and provided water to Jerusalem. It symbolized the tranquility of obedient faith. This faith had been abandoned when Israel broke with the throne of David in 922. This faithless northern kingdom was now putting its trust in Syria and in its own apostate monarchy.
Syria and Israel would soon be visited by another river, the mighty Euphrates, which symbolized the Assyrian Empire (verse 7). These nations had chosen the world rather than God, and now the world would flood them over. The invasion would be so devastating that even Judah would feel the flood, barely able to keep its head above water (verse 8). In appealing to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16), Ahaz had submitted the Davidic throne o a secular, foreign power. It would never be the same again.
The second part of this chapter treats of the faithful remnant (verses 9-22). Isaiah mocks the coalition arranged against Judah (verses 9-10). His confidence is related to his inner separation from the infidelity of his contemporaries (verse 11), whom he exhorts to ignore the alliance arrayed against Judah (verse 12). They must fear God and not man (verse 13).
Isaiah speaks of his disciples, who will preserve his oracles until they have been fulfilled (verse 16; 50:4; 54:13). Indeed, it is to these Isaian disciples, who pertain to the remnant of which he speaks, that we owe both the preservation and the final form of Isaiah’s message. He gives further instruction to these disciples (verses 19-22).
Isaiah and his sons, meanwhile, remain as “signs” to Judah (verse 18: Hebrews 2:13). Like these two sons, Isaiah has a symbolic name—“The Lord saves.”
Saturday, November 1
Isaiah 9: This chapter is made up of two parts: a separate oracle (verses 1-7) and the first part of a longer poem (9:8—10:4).
The original setting for the opening oracle in this chapter (verses 1-7) was the Assyrian invasion into Syria and Galilee in 733. Now, for the first time, the Israelites suffer the wrath of the Assyrians, who come into the territory of the tribe of Naphtali, along the western coast of the Sea of Galilee and extending further north, and the land of the tribe of Zebulun, the area lying west and southwest of Naphtali, toward the Mediterranean Sea (cf. Joshua 19:10-16,32-39). Afflicted along with these western tribes was the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan valley (verse 1). These Israelite territories, in the eyes of the Assyrians, were indistinguishable from Syria and were treated accordingly, their populations deported a full decade before the downfall of Samaria in 722.
Isaiah calls these territories “Galilee of the Gentiles,” probably because non-Israelites populated much of it; the region had come under the influence and even the rule of the Gentiles since the period of Solomon (1 Kings 9:11).
With the disastrous arrival of the Assyrians, darkness fell on this whole region, but Isaiah prophesies the restoration of light (verse 2). The Messiah, after all, would come for the Gentiles as well as for the Israelites (11:10; 42:1,6; 49:6; 60:1-3). Christians see the fulfillment of this prophecy, for Israelite and Gentile alike, in the arrival of Jesus, who began His ministry in this very area (Matthew 4:12-17).
There is a problem in the Hebrew text of the third verse, which reads, “You have multiplied the nation and not increased the joy,” which is perfectly grammatical and makes no sense. This Hebrew reading, which is followed by the Latin Vulgate and the King James Version, comes from a copyist’s mistaking lo, “unto it,” as lo’, “not.” To make coherent sense of the verse it is reasonable, and seems necessary, to correct the text to “You have multiplied the nation and increased joy unto it.”
The following verse (4) goes on to enumerate the blessings that increased the joy of the people, comparing their blessings to Gideon’s liberation of Israel from the Midianites as recorded in Judges 6—8. Gideon’s victory, we recall, benefited the Galilean tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali (Judges 6:35). Hence the propriety of Isaiah’s historical reference.
The Hebrew text of verse 5 contains a play of sounds impossible to convey adequately in English: “Every soldier’s boot (se’on) used in battle (so’en).” A fire will destroy all instruments of war, because the reign of the Messiah will be a reign of peace.
Which consideration brings us to verse 6, which indicates the reason for this coming era of peace, the birth of the Messiah. He is both a human child and a divine Son, described here in terms that fit only one person in history. His name is fourfold: “wonderful counselor” (like Solomon, but unlike the current king, Ahaz), “almighty God” (’El gibbór, corresponding to the Immánu El in 7:14), “everlasting Father” (indeed, the new Adam), and “prince of pease (sar shalom). This King will be the true Solomon—Shlomo, “man of peace”; his will be a true reign of peace (verse 7). This son of David will be David’s very Lord (Matthew 22:41-46).
There follows a poem in four stanzas (9:8—10:4), a “word” (dabar) sent from the Lord (verse 8). It is not clear whether this poem is a prophecy of the future or a reflection on the immediate past, but its message is clear: the inevitability of disaster when the divine word falls on deaf ears, and the divine judgment falls on hard hearts.
This disaster is described through the four stanzas: (1) the downfall of the nation (verses 8-12); (2) the suffering resultant from political chaos (verses 13-17); (3) the destruction of a social sense (verses 18-21); and (4) the loss of the moral order (10:1-4).
In the first stanza (verses 8-12) Isaiah is distressed because Israel seems not to have learned the spiritual and moral lesson contained in the disaster that has just befallen it. Still entertaining sentiments of grandeur, those Northerners plan to replace with cut rock the ruined bricks of their destroyed buildings, and to use expensive cedar to rebuild the sycamore beams of their demolished homes. These aspirations are symptomatic of the same spiritual sickness that the Lord had sent the recent calamity to cure.
And “send” (shalah) is the important verb. These political tragedies do not simply happen. The Lord sends them, says Isaiah, using the same term by which other 8th century prophets interpreted the political disaster of that century (Amos 1:4,7,10,12; 2:2,5; 4:10; Hosea 8:4).
When the punishment falls, says Isaiah, “all the people, everyone of them, will know it” (weyad‘u ha‘am kullo) (cf. Hosea 9:7). Once refused, God’s word become His punishment (cf. 28:10-13).
The Northern Kingdom, Ephraim, was not saved by its alliance with Rezin, the king of Syria. On the contrary, the alliance simply provoked Assyrian reprisals. Neglecting God’s word, Israel had become a disposable pawn in geopolitics, pressed on the east by Syria and on the west by the Philistines (verse 12; cf. Amos 1:6).
The second stanza (verses 13-17) describes the ensuing collapse of the political leadership in the Northern Kingdom. The leaders mislead (verse 16), a fact illustrated by a pair of polarities, head and tail/brand and reed (verse 14), both of which mean high and low (verse 15). This loss of political leadership especially touches the young men that perish in battle and the families that are left behind (verse 17). The “single day” is a metaphor for “all of a sudden.”
It is difficult not to think that Isaiah’s references to political chaos in the north have in mind the constant political strife that ensued on the death of Jeroboam II in 753 until the downfall of Samaria in 722 (2 Kings 15:8-31). During those three decades Israel had six kings, five of whom grabbed the throne on the assassination of their predecessors.
The third stanza (9:18-21) describes the moral anarchy that reigned during this period, when the loss of adequate political leadership led to the collapse of the social order. It was expressed in radical selfishness, unbridled by ethical and social restraints. Brotherhood was betrayed (verse 19); there was no social cohesion (verse 21). Like fire, lawlessness fed on itself and therefore consumed itself (verses 18,20). The Lord, in punishment, permitted it to happen (verse 19).
Meanwhile the competing tribes of Joseph (cf. Genesis 41:50-52; 48:5) engaged in mutual destruction, never united except to invade Judah in the south (2 Kings 15:27).
Sunday, November 2
Isaiah 10: There are three parts to this chapter: (1) the final stanza of the poem begun in the previous chapter (verses 1-4); (2) an oracle about God’s use of Assyria to accomplish His purposes in history (verses 5-15); (3) an oracle on the theme of the remnant (verses 16-34).
The first section of this chapter (verses 1-4), then, is the fourth and final stanza of the long poem begun in chapter nine (9:8—10:4).
The radical selfishness described earlier (9:18-21), combined with the dissolution of political restraints (9:13-17), increased the misfortunes of those already disadvantaged by the losses of war, namely, the widows and orphans of the slain (verse 2). Indeed, even the powers of legislation are used against these poor, those powers now usurped by the unjust and avaricious (verse 1). Hence, the poverty of the poor is worsened, and the weakness of the oppressed increased.
Such injustices, however, are the harbingers of the impending and ineluctable reckoning of God, which will (verse 3) come “from afar,” that is, from the forces of Assyria in the distant east. Those currently abusing their local power will not escape. The sense in the difficult wording of verse 4 is reasonably preserved in the NIV, “Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.”
The divine judgment prophesied in this poem is larger than the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722. Considered in the full context of the canonical Book of Isaiah, this prophecy points to the final judgment on history by the King that appears at the end of time to separate the sheep from the goats. Indeed, the social sins condemned here by Isaiah are the very ones of which Jesus speaks in His famous parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:41-43). The characteristics of the final Judge will be described in the third and final section of the Book of Isaiah, where we will read of the vindicating Warrior.
The second part of this chapter (verses 5-15) follows the imagery and theme of what immediately precedes it: the divine judgment implemented in history. This oracle is probably to be dated some time soon after 734, when Assyria began in earnest to menace the western half of the Fertile Crescent. Although the kingdom of Judah refused to join the local resistance to Assyria (the coalition of Syria and Israel, about which Isaiah had so much to say), the nation was bound to feel the geopolitical pressure of that great power coming from the east. This was especially the case after the fall of Samaria in 722 (verses 9-11).
This is, in short, an oracle on two views of history: the view of the Assyria, which imagined itself imposing its own political determination on the future, and the view of God, the Lord of history, who is using such nations to bring about His own purposes in the future. Who really governs history? asks Isaiah, and he is very clear on the answer.
The Assyrian conqueror, as he moved west and subdued Syria and Israel, did not think of himself as an instrument of the biblical God (verse 7). Indeed, it was the furthest thing from his thoughts (cf. 37:1-13). Nonetheless, from God’s perspective, and according to God’s purposed, the Assyrian was nothing more than an instrument in the divine hand (verses 5,14). He is nothing more than the rod of God’s indignation (verses 5,15), the ax in the grasp of the carpenter; effectively, the Assyrian had only the authority given him from above (verse 6; cf. John 19:11). The Assyrian was simply what one writer calls the agent of God’s “moral purpose.” (More than a century later this would be Habakkuk’s view of the Babylonians, and more than a thousand later this would be Augustine’s view of the Visigoths.)
At the same time, Assyria was morally responsible for the evil it inflicted on the peoples that it conquered. God’s sovereignty in history in no way excuses man’s moral responsibility in history (cf. Romans 9:17-19).
In a later part of Isaiah (37:28-29) this truth is expressed in the metaphor of the horse and rider. The Lord is the rider of whatever historical horse that He chooses. At the same time, that horse will simply do what horses do; it will act according to its nature. None of its horsiness is negated by the sovereign influence of the Rider. It is natural that the horse thinks of himself as the one in charge, but, says Isaiah, he is grievously deceived on the point.
Although Assyria’s invasion of Syria and Israel is the occasion of this oracle, Isaiah intended his words for Judah, which lies next in the path of the Assyrian boot. Indeed, the Assyrian already has Jerusalem in his sights (verses 10-12). Isaiah knows very well that the Assyrian will in a short time be pitching his tents in the siege of Jerusalem.
But Isaiah sees even further; he also prophesies that after the Assyrian has unwittingly served the historical purpose for which the Lord used him, he too will be cut off for his arrogance and cruelty (verses 12-15; cf. 14:13-16,25).
The third section of this chapter (verses 16-34) is an oracle on the theme of the remnant. This theme of the remnant follows logically from the preceding material about devastation and destruction.
As we begin this section it will be instructive to remark that St. Paul, as he begins his long treatment on the dialectics of biblical history (Romans 9—11), seems to be following the sequence in this chapter of Isaiah. As noted above, Paul met the objection of those who imagined that God’s sovereignty over history excused man’s moral responsibilities in history (Romans 9:17-23). Then Paul moved immediately from this topic to that of the remnant (Romans 9:27-29). In making this move, moreover, St. Paul explicitly quotes this tenth chapter of Isaiah, which is clearly his inspiration in Romans 9. Both the Pauline and the Isaian chapters, in fact, deal with the same subject: the achievement of God’s historical purpose through His own choice of instruments.
In the final oracle of the chapter of Isaiah (verses 16-34) the prophet repeats a double theme that we saw in the previous poem (verses 5-15): first, God uses the powers of this world to chastise His people for their infidelities, and second, He permits these worldly powers neither to destroy His people utterly nor to go unpunished for their own sins.
This oracle begins and ends by identifying God as “the Lord, Lord of hosts” (verses 16,33; cf. variations on this verses 23,24). The oracle is structured in two parts (verses 16-23 and verses 24-34), each of them beginning with “therefore” (verses 16,21) and containing the reference “in that day” (verses 20,27).
The true sovereign over history is not some paltry occupant of the Assyrian throne, no matter how impressive he seems to his contemporaries (as in verses 28-32). This thesis about history is what Isaiah enunciates in his references to “the Lord, Lord of hosts” (verses 16,23), “the Holy One” (verses 17,20), the “mighty God” (El gibbor–verse 21; cf. 9:5). The destruction of Assyria, therefore, will be the work of a day (verse 17; cf. 9:1; 10:3; 30:26-33; 37:36).
The places referenced in verses 28-32 are the cities and regions through which the Assyrian was obliged to go on his march to Jerusalem. Aiath seems to be the ancient Ai (cf. Joshua 7:2), about fifteen miles north of the capital, and Migron and Michmash (cf. 1 Samuel 14:2) are farther south. The “pass” through which the Assyrian army crossed at Michmash descended 300 feet into a valley, immediately followed by an ascent of 500 feet up to Geba. Ramah and Gibeah are only six miles from Jerusalem. Terror, meanwhile, has struck the neighboring town of Anatoth, five miles northwest of Jerusalem, and nearby Gallim, Laisha, Madmenah, and Gebim, these last two so far unidentified by archeology. Nob was but a single mile from the capital; there the Assyrians halt to establish surveillance over Jerusalem.
Marching thus triumphantly toward the holy city, the Assyrian forces have no idea that they are walking into fire, for the light of Israel is not extinguished. The Assyrians are to be feared no more than the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus (verse 24), no more than the Midianites at the time of Gideon (verse 26; Judges 7:25).
Isaiah’s comparison of Sennacherib (704-681) to Oreb is particularly appropriate, inasmuch as both men were punished after their respective battles were lost.
The “anointing” in verse 27 refers to the Lord’s messianic covenant with the house of David (cf. 28:16; 37:33-35; 38:5-6) and alludes to the messianic figure that emerges from the stock of Jesse at the beginning of the following chapter. This is a prophecy definitively fulfilled in David’s final and true Heir (cf. Matthew 28:18).
In fact, God is preparing to cut down this mighty forest of an army (verses 33-34). This image prepares the reader for the oracle that begins the next chapter. The coming destruction of the Assyrian forest clears the ground, as it were, for the new shoot from the stump to which the invading army has reduced the root of Jesse, the royal house of David. The first part of the Book of Isaiah will end with the prophet’s narrative of this event (chapters 36—37).
Monday, November 3
Isaiah 11: The original setting of this chapter was the same prolonged crisis that prompted Isaiah to speak earlier of the “stump” (6:13) and to describe the destruction of a mighty forest (10:33-34). The house of David had been reduced to a “stump” during the invasions of the Syro-Ephraemitic League and the Assyrians. If the Davidic throne seemed but a stump in the eighth century, this was even more the case two centuries later, when the Book of Isaiah received its final editing. By that time the house of David had been definitively removed from the throne of Judah, never again to be restored in recorded history. These later biblical editors (Ezra, perhaps) were keenly aware of the messianic tension in Isaiah, the tension between the prophesied downfall of the Davidic house (7:17) and the prophesied glory of its restoration (1:25-27). This tension produced chapter 9 and the two poems contained in the present chapter.
These two poems (verses 1-9 and 12-16) are joined by two verses of prose (verses 10-11) that summarize the first and serve as a preamble to the second. The two poems are complementary, both of them dealing with the eschatological characteristics of the divine, messianic reign. The theme of wisdom and knowledge in the first poem (verse 2) finds its parallel in the “knowledge of the Lord” in the second (verse 9).
The future tense of both poems is strengthened by the double “in that day” (bayyom hahu’–verses 10-11) of the prose section. This expression points to the future day of history, when God acts to define the destiny of the world. It will be the renewal of Israel’s ancient deliverance from Egypt (verses 11,16).
The short prose section (verse 10) also takes up “Jesse,” “root,” and “rest” from the first poem (verses 1-2), and introduces “remnant,” “hand,” “sea,” “Assyria,” and “Egypt” (verse 11), which will appear again in the second poem (verses 15-16).
Thus, the entire chapter anticipates a renewed world, in which all peoples will live at peace, both among themselves and with the rest of creation, under the Lord’s anointed King.
This latter, the Messiah, is identified as both the “shoot” (verse 1) and the “root” (verse 10) of Jesse. That is to say, He is both the descendent of David, Jesse’s son, and also the determining source, causa finalis, from which that royal line is derived. He is both David’s Son, in short, and his Lord (Psalm 109 :1; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 1:32; cf. Hosea 3:5; Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23-24). The Messiah is born of David’s line, but He is the root of that line. This Old Testament truth comes to light solely in the New Testament.
The Messiah is endowed with the Holy Spirit (verse 2; cf. 42:1; 52:21; 61:1). The description of the Spirit in this verse resembles the Menorah, with a central core (“the Spirit of the Lord”) and three pairs of extended arms: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, the knowledge and fear of the Lord.
The idyllic setting of peace among the animals (verses 6-8) recalls not only Eden prior to the Fall (Genesis 1:29-30), but also the conditions on Noah’s Ark, another of the great images of salvation.
The little child that presides over this universal peace (verses 6,8) is, of course, the newborn Messiah, the same One recognized by the ass and the ox (1:3). There is no more enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of snakes, for the curse is taken away (verse 8).
The last part of verse 9 should read, “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the sea with water.”
Although the original context for the present message of encouragement was apparently the dark season of the Assyrian invasions, the hope contained in this text extends into the future. It is a prophecy that has in view the coming history of the people of God. This messianic reign is not solely for the Jews, because the nations (goyim) will also seek the root of Jesse (verse 10; cf. verse 12; 2:2-4; 9:1-7).
Tuesday, November 4
The First Epistle to the Thessalonians: This epistle seems to be the earliest book of the New Testament.
Paul had arrived in Macedonia with Luke, Timothy, and Silas (or Silvanus) during the summer of A.D. 49 (Acts 16:9–12). This region he began evangelizing at Philippi, “the chief city in that part of Macedonia and a colony.” In spite of difficulties, including a night in jail, a Christian congregation was established at Philippi, but Paul was obliged to leave abruptly (16:40).
It is at this point in the narrative in Acts that the writer changes his address from “we” to “they,” showing that the writer, Luke, has been left at Philippi to pastor the congregation there. Eight years later, still at Philippi, we shall find Luke once again joining Paul’s company for the trip to Jerusalem (20:6).
When Paul left Philippi so abruptly in the year 49, Silas and (it would seem) Timothy came with him. They proceeded southwest along the Egnatian Road, one of the great arteries that held the Roman Empire together.
A day or two and some thirty miles later, Paul’s party came to Amphipolis (Acts 17:1), about three miles inland from the sea, at the point where, Herodotus tells us (History 7.114), the Persian emperor Xerxes had crossed the River Strymon in 480 B.C., on his way down to the Battle of Thermopylae. As Paul and Silas came near Amphipolis, they could not help but notice beside the road the large statue of a lion that had already stood in that place for nearly 500 years. It was a monument erected there to commemorate the victory of the Athenians over the Edoni in 437 B.C., and today’s visitors to northern Greece still stop to admire and photograph it, almost two and a half millennia after that battle.
Paul and his company, proceeding almost directly south the next day, and still walking parallel to the coast, arrived in Apollonia, whence they proceeded due west to Thessalonica some 38 miles away (Acts 17:1). It would have required the gift of long-range prophecy for Paul to know, on that day, how important his arrival at Thessaloniki would prove to be in the course of the next 20 centuries.
Paul and the others promptly preached the gospel and established a local church at Thessaloniki. Indeed, “promptly” is definitely the word we want here, because after only three weeks they were run out of town! (cf. Acts 17:2). When physical danger obliged them to sneak away during the night (17:10), Paul and his company were doubtless very discouraged. They had hardly had time, in less than a month, properly to catechize Jason and the other new converts. These, in fact, were already beginning to suffer persecution for the sake of the Christian faith (17:5–9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
As he continued his missionary journey, first to Berea, then to Athens, and then to Corinth, Paul remained concerned about those new Thessalonian Christians. Early in Paul’s stay at Corinth, Timothy and Silas returned from Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 3:6), bringing news and also certain questions from those new Christians whom he had had so little time to evangelize properly. The fruit of his concern is found in two epistles that he wrote to them during the ensuing eighteen months that he spent at Corinth, between early 50 and mid-51 (Acts 18:11).
In these two epistles, Paul mainly answered the questions put to him by the Thessalonians through his envoys Silas (Silvanus) and Timothy. (This is why he included them as co-authors.) Paul endeavored to fill in some important details about Christian life and doctrine, details that his brief stay in the city had caused him to neglect. These two epistles thus served to strengthen the faith and commitment of the Thessalonians.
However difficult and unpromising may have seemed the origins of the church of the Thessalonians, the congregation was there to stay, and the history of that apostolic church is an ongoing tale of glory. All of us, moreover, have been well served by those two epistles, the earliest writings to be included in the New Testament.
We may remark here that the patron saint of Thessaloniki is the martyr Demetrius, apparently a young gladiator who was converted and gave his life for the faith in Christ under Emperor Maximin II in the early fourth century. When the city’s cathedral was constructed during the years 412–413, it was named for Demetrius. Damaged and partly destroyed by numerous fires over the centuries, the latest in 1917, the Cathedral of St. Demetrius, with its five naves and very important frescoes, remains one of the great historic church buildings of Christianity.
Today’s visitor to the Thessalonian cathedral calls to mind, as he stands under its dome, the enormous historical and religious significance of the spot. It was here, in 863, that consecrating hands were laid on the kneeling Cyril and Methodius, two Thessalonian brothers, who were sent forth to evangelize much of Eastern Europe. It was here, in the years between 1347 and 1359, that the faithful gathered to listen to the sermons of Gregory Palamas, one of the Church’s greatest and most subtle thinkers.
The Thessalonian church founded by Paul in A.D. 49 is very much alive to this very day, roughly nineteen and a half centuries after he and his companions were forced to leave the city by night, saddened at being able to spend only three weeks preaching the gospel in that place.
In the present epistle, Paul begins by complimenting the Thessalonians for their conversion and perseverance, exhorting them at length to hold fast to their new faith. Much of the letter is taken up with such moral exhortation and encouragement.
Toward the end of chapter 4, however, and through much of chapter 5, Paul deals with subjects about which he had not had time to teach the Thessalonians earlier: death, judgment, and the second coming of the Lord (which is why we are reading this epistle toward the end of the liturgical year). The new believers at Thessaloniki, it seems, were so convinced of the imminence of the Lord’s return that they grieved because some of their loved ones had recently died and, feared they, would not be around for the Lord’s return! Paul thus writes to instruct them further concerning the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
Wednesday, November 5
Luke 19:11-27: This parable, partly matched in Matthew 25:14-27, is more complex than its counterpart and more allegorical. It contains not only the theme of divine stewardship but also that of obtaining a kingdom.
The central figure in this parable in Luke is a man who makes a distant trip to procure a royal title. In its theological sense the story symbolizes the departure of Christ to heaven, whence He will someday return with this kingly title to assess the stewardship of His servants on earth. That is to say, “He will come again in glory to judge.”
Among the other allegorical elements in the account we note the future king’s rejection by his own people, along with his eventual rejection and punishment of them.
Many readers of this parable have observed that its details are strangely parallel to things that actually transpired in the career of Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great. At the death of the latter in 4 B.C., Archelaus journeyed to Rome to plead for the title and authority of his father from Caesar Augustus. A delegation of Jews also went to Rome for the purpose of making the opposite request (Josephus, Antiquities 17.11.1. §299-302).
It is difficult to assess the value of these interesting parallels. One is at least justified in pointing out, nonetheless, that whereas in the Lukan parable the man’s enemies fail to prevent his obtaining the kingdom, in the case of Archelaus the enemies were somewhat more successful. In this latter case Rome declined to give Archelaus the title of king. He was given authority as “tetrarch” (“one-quarter-king”) over Judea and Samaria (cf. Matthew 2:22), from which position he was deposed ten years later.
Thursday, November 6
Luke 19:28-40: The journey motif in Luke now arrives at its climax. Jesus enters Jerusalem, towards which His whole ministry, as narrated by Luke, has been tending by providential necessity.
As we have had occasion to reflect several times before, Luke’s story is dominated by the image of Jerusalem. It begins (1:9) and ends (24:52-53) and ends in Jerusalem (a feature that explains why Luke includes no appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee, which are mentioned in all three of the other Gospels). Jesus has now arrived in that city where human redemption will be accomplished, the “redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38).
Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives (verse 29). This is the mountain on which He will soon be tried in the garden(22:39) and from which He will, at the end of Luke, ascend into heaven (24:50). The climax of the Lukan journey motif, then, comes on a mountain.
At Bethany (from which He is pictured both as going into Jerusalem and going into heaven), which is on the east side of the Mount of Olives, Jesus is about two miles east of Jerusalem. The village of Bethphage is closer to the top of the Mount of Olives, 2673 feet above sea level.
The Lord chooses a donkey, not a destrier, for His entry into the Holy City (verse 30), signifying that He comes peacefully, not as a conqueror (cf. Genesis 49:11; 1 Kings 1:38; Zechariah 9:9). He is, after all, the rightful king of this city.
The chant with which He is accompanied (verse 38) comes from Psalm 118 (Greek and Latin 117), the last of the Hallel Psalms (113-118 [112-117]), which will soon be chanted in full near the end of the Passover Seder. Perhaps in consideration of his Gentile readers, Luke omits the word Hebrew word “Hosanna.”
Friday, November 7
Luke 19:41-44: The rejoicing hymnody of the previous verses suddenly turns to lamentation. In foretelling Jerusalem’s conquest by the Romans in the present verses, Jesus uses the language employed by the prophet Jeremiah when he foretold the earlier downfall of that city to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 6:6,13-14,17,21; 7:11). We recall that in Luke’s narrative this is the first time that Jesus has seen Jerusalem since His temptation in 4:9. All through His ministry, however, Jesus’ thought and intent have been directed to Jerusalem (Luke 9:31,51,53; 13:22,33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11,28). Now He “sees” it and weeps (verse 41). Since Luke does not often portray the emotions of Jesus, this detail is especially striking.
In verse 42 the underlying Semitic word for “peace,” shalom, is part of the root of the city’s own name Jerusalem (cf. Hebrews 7:1-2).
The details of the siege in verse 43 are quite identical to the Romans’ treatment of Jerusalem just prior to its downfall. This fact, however, is not especially significant, inasmuch as all besieged cities are besieged in pretty much the same way, and Jerusalem had been besieged many times.
The reason given for Jerusalem’s coming destruction is identical with the reason given for the city’s earlier destruction at the hands of the Babylonians—namely, its failure to recognized the hour of the visitation of divine grace. The removal of one stone from atop another is a description of its “unbuilding” (cf. Haggai 2:15).
In Luke’s narrative these verses describe Jesus’ first entry into the Temple since He was twelve years old (2:40-50). His purging of the Temple here (verses 45-48) is a partial fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy in 2:34. It is also, of course, a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1-2.
Luke does not, like Mark, specify that this purging of the Temple took place on Monday. It is peculiar to Luke, however, that Jesus’ action prepares the Temple to become a place appropriate for His teaching, which follows immediately (verse 47).
The Temple’s purging is also related to its being a “house of prayer” (verse 46). This theme is especially prominent in Luke (cf. 1:8-11; 2:37; 18:10; 24:53).
In the ensuing days Jesus’ enemies endeavor to destroy Him, in evident reaction to the claims in His “take over” of the Temple for His own teaching ministry. The controversy here has to do entirely with the question of who has proper authority in the Temple. In Luke’s theology, Jesus in due course replaces the Temple, a theme that will be made explicit in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.
When Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple, it was the most eschatological of actions. Jesus thereby affirmed that the temple really is a precinct separated from an “outside,” where are found “dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:15). Thus, the Bible’s final book does not portray an afterlife of universal reconciliation, but an everlasting separation of wheat and chaff.