Friday, March 20
Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse 12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).
These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken. There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid this fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.
Matthew 22:15-22: From a purely material perspective, this series of conflict stories, all of them placed during the final week of our Lord’s earthly life, is nearly identical in the three Synoptic Gospels. This fact offers strong testimony that the final chapters in these three Gospels reflect the preaching of the early Church, which apparently knew a standard narrative structure respecting the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.
Matthew follows this structure. In this series of conflict stories he has already begun to introduce those persons who will play an active hand in the drama of the Crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now he introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government, the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.
In the story that follows this one he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again that confluence of enemies that were intent on killing “the King of the Jews” at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).
The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians have no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.
The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.
The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus, or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.
Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).
That point established, He then obliges them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belongs to the emperor, so the questioners could continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It is his.
Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).
But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).
It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.
And this is the sense in which we should understand Jesus’ response. Understood in this way, the Lord’s directive is full of irony. He tells His enemies to give back to God that which belongs to Him. And, in context, just what is that? It is Jesus Himself, whose life they will steal, and in their act of murder that which belongs to God will be rendered unto God.
Saturday, March 21
Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.
What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddhartha Gautama.
Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).
Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.
Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 :22)
and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 :6).
Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).
With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 :31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).
Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: the four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and the four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).
Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.
Sunday, March 22
Matthew 22:34-40: The Pharisees, perhaps not entirely displeased with the discomfiting of the Sadducees, meet again among themselves (verse 34). One of their number, likely representing the rest, approaches Jesus to test Him (verse 35).
Matthew’s version of this story differs considerably in tone from the parallel text in Mark 12:28, where the questioner appears well disposed toward Jesus. The corresponding text in Luke 10:25 comes much earlier in the narrative, in a quite different setting, where it introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Matthew, however, the question put to Jesus is integral to the series of skirmishes between Jesus and His enemies (21:15—22:46), which precedes the Lord’s lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in the next chapter (which is also proper to Matthew). The present scene also takes up the theme of biblical interpretation, which was inaugurated in the previous story (verses 23-33).
Some manuscripts call the questioner in this story a “lawyer” (nomikos). Inasmuch as this word is not found elsewhere in Matthew and is missing in the better manuscripts of this passage, it is possible that an early copyist borrowed the term from the parallel account in Luke 10:25.
The rabbinic tradition counted up to 613 Commandments in the Torah, 248 of them positive (“you shall”) and 365 of them negative (“you shall not”)—one for each day of the year. All were not considered all to be of the same weight. The prohibition against idolatry, for instance, clearly carried more weight than laws about the maintenance of a man’s sideburns.
Jesus answers the questioner by reciting part of the Shema, which devout Jews recited several times each day (Deuteronomy 6:5). As Matthew cites the text, he slightly alters (“mind,” or dianoia, instead of “strength,” or dynamis) the LXX reading. We notice that Mark’s text includes the whole Shema.
Jesus cites only two positive commandments, not the prohibitions. Love is the fundamental commandment on which all the others rest.
As the Sadducees had failed to notice the implications of Exodus 3:14-15, so the Pharisees had somehow missed the true meaning of (and relationship between) Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Not really loving God, they have also not loved their neighbor, whom they were currently plotting to kill. They were not rendering unto God the things that are God’s (verse 21).
Matthew’s version of the second commandment is more strongly expressed than in Mark. It is “like unto” the first.
We should also read the account of these two commandments as addressing a practical pastoral question posed in the church for which Matthew wrote. In that Jewish Christian congregation it was of great importance to know how the Lord wanted the Law to be observed. All the Law, says Jesus’ answer, hangs on (krematai) these two commandments. Since this was the Lord’s own perspective on the matter, it is not surprising that His answer is essentially what we find in the various writers of the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).
Since Matthew (unlike Mark and Luke) places these two verses of the Torah in the context of a dispute with the Pharisees, we suspect that on this point (“which is the greatest commandment”) such a dispute continued between the Pharisees and Matthew’s Christians.
The Apostle John reverses the order of these two commandments, not in an absolute sense, but in the sense that the second commandment is the easier to check on. He writes, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).
The inquirer had asked only about the Torah, but Jesus says that these two commandments dominate not only the Torah but also the prophets (verse 40).
Monday, March 23
Zechariah 1: The message of Zechariah, like that of his contemporary, Haggai, was directed to priorities. When the Persian emperor Cyrus permitted the Jews to return home from the Babylonian Captivity in 538 B.C., relatively few of them did. Most of the Jews in exile, having established homes and businesses in the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, were little disposed to return to a land that had suffered the ravages of war, and most of those who did come home were younger and relatively poor. Also, they were nearly all unmarried men.
Moreover, the new life awaiting these men was frugal. The available area of the Promised Land was only about 20 square miles around the city of Jerusalem, which was in ruins. It was not politically independent but belonged to the administrative district of Samaria, part of the fifth Persian satrapy.
This southern part of the Holy Land, which was never especially fertile, had not been farmed in half a century, and trees and wild brush can grow very thick and tall on farmland left fallow for so long. Moreover, the newcomers immediately faced a series of crop failures and meager harvests, sending up prices in a population already impoverished.
Still, farming was about the only way a young man could make a living in this region, for there were no other industries. Those who had not managed to obtain land often found themselves unemployed.
The rest of the Holy Land was largely populated by half-Jews and non-Jews who were opposed to the return of these newcomers. Not only were jobs scarce, but those who went out looking for work might be mugged or shot at: “There were no wages for man, nor any hire for beast; there was no peace from the enemy for whoever went out or came in” (Zechariah 8:10).
In this context, the returned exiles felt justified in delaying the reconstruction of the temple. It was the vocation of Zechariah and Haggai to tell them otherwise—to arrange the affairs of their ivies
The first chapter of Zechariah contains two dated revelations, the first (verses 1-6) in October/November of 520 B.C., and the second (verses 7-17) in January/February of 519. The first oracle is a general call to repentance based on a serious acceptance of God’s prophetic word. It affirms, as all godly exhortation should affirm, that God will turn to us when we turn to Him (verse 3).
The second oracle is connected with a vision that the prophet has in a myrtle grove, where he sees various messengers of God seated on red and partly-red horses. These messengers report that the world is now peaceful. From a certain perspective, of course, this is good news. The Persian Empire had just been racked by two years of civil war resultant of the rebellion of Gaumata in 521. The Emperor Cambyses apparently committed suicide in response to the rebellion, and it took two years for the new emperor, Darius I, to put down the rebellion and secure the empire. In the midst of all this agitation and ferment, nonetheless, Jerusalem was no better off.
In spite of the return of some Jews to the Holy Land, beginning in 538, life there was not yet sufficiently stable and productive for the great masses of the Jews to return from the Babylonian Captivity. Consequently, the message of peace, delivered by God’s mounted observers of the earth, is a mixed message, because it has created an atmosphere of wellbeing that dulls the moral sense in the face of evil (verse 15). This Persian peace will not last forever, of course. Indeed, Persia’s defeat at the Battle of Marathon lies less than thirty years in the future.
Matthew 22:41-46: While the Pharisees are still gathered in Jesus’ presence, He poses for them an additional exegetical problem: To whom was David referring when he spoke of his “Lord” in Psalm 110 (Greek and Latin 109)? If it was the Messiah, who must be David’s own son, how could he be David’s “Lord”? Jesus thus teases the mind to ask a deeper question of the Psalm, just as He earlier (verse 32) indicated a concealed meaning in Exodus 3. In each case this deeper meaning is verified and validated in His person.
As Christians grasped the point of Jesus’ question here, this psalm became ever more important in the development of early Christology (cf. Mark 16:19; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12).
Tuesday, March 24
Zechariah 2: Jerusalem’s wall would not be reconstructed until the time of Nehemiah. During these prophecies of Zechariah, around 520, Jerusalem is still only a little village without walls. There is no slight irony, then, when an angel proposes to measure the length and breadth of it (verse 2). The irony itself is prophetic, because the day will come when Jerusalem will be too large to measure, “for the multitude of men and cattle therein” (verse 4).
More than the earthly Jerusalem is involved here, of course. The perspective of this prophecy is turned, rather, to that Jerusalem yet to come, “when many nations shall be joined to the Lord” (verse 11). The Jerusalem where Zechariah lived had already been destroyed once, and less than six centuries later it would be destroyed again. None of the promises made to that ancient Jerusalem were completely fulfilled in this regard, because that Jerusalem was a type and prefiguration of the more ample and catholic Jerusalem to whom the pledge was made, “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” Matthew 28:20).
This is the Jerusalem where God’s Exodus-presence is fulfilled: “For I, says the Lord, will be unto her as a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her” (verse 5). This protecting presence of the Lord is the chapter’s major theme (cf. verse 11,13). In verse 12 we have the first occurrence of the expression “Holy Land” with reference to the land of promise. The expression will later appear in the Wisdom of Solomon 12:3 and 2 Maccabees 1:7.
Matthew 23:1-12: Although individual verses of this chapter correspond to verses in the other gospels, this chapter’s construction as a whole and its setting in the last week of Jesus’ life are peculiar to Matthew. It fittingly follows the long series of altercations between Jesus and His enemies in the two previous chapters.
The present chapter commences with a warning that the Lord’s disciples are not to imitate the hypocritical, self-absorbed religion of the Pharisees (verses 1-10). It is instructive to observe that this censure is not extended to the chief priests, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the elders. Only the scribes and Pharisees are criticized here.
This restriction of the censure indicates the setting in which Matthew wrote, sometime after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, at which point the priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians were no longer part of the Jewish leadership. The Judaism with which Matthew was dealing was that of the Pharisees and the scribes, the only ones left with the moral authority to lead the Jewish people. Those other social and religious elements, though powerful at an earlier period, were not of immediate concern to Matthew. Although the priestly class are Jesus’ chief enemies in the story of the Passion, they do not figure here in chapter 23, because Matthew has in mind his own contemporary circumstance, in which the priestly class is no longer significant.
This discourse is directed to Jesus’ disciples, who are warned not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees (verses 1-3). The “seat of Moses” is a metaphor for the teaching authority of these men. We observe that Matthew regards these men as still having authority, very much as we find the Apostle Paul recognizing the authority of the high priest and the Sanhedrin. This authority, says the Sacred Text, is to be respected. It is the men that hold that authority who are not to be imitated!
In what respect are they not to be imitated? They lay heavy burdens on men’s backs. In context these are the burdens of legalism, a weight that makes the service of God onerous and unbearable (verse 4). This is a form of religious oppression. These “heavy burdens,” which contrast with the “light burden” of the Gospel (11:30), consisted of the numerous rules, regulations, and rubrics that governed the lives of their fellow Jews. Matthew is at one with Paul that these myriad matters were no longer essential.
It is worth mentioning, in this context, that legalism tends to return to the Christian Church from time to time, though no longer associated with the Mosaic Law. We are seldom short of Christians who like to oppress their brethren with an endless recitation of rules and rubrics. This sort of mentality renders the service of God a dreadful burden. It constitutes a scandal in the strict sense of turning men from the love and service of God.
The real motive of the Pharisees, however, was nothing but unsubtle self-aggrandizement (verses 5-7). A phylactery is a small leather box containing passages from Holy Scripture. These were worn strapped to the forehead and the arm during morning prayers, a rather literal interpretation of Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and 11:13-22. The rabbis referred to these as tefillin. The fringes are the tassels that adorn the prayer shawl, in accord with Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12.
By implication Matthew encourages Christians to avoid this sort of preoccupation,
and he explicitly rejects the use of certain honorific titles (verses 8-10). With respect to the title of “Rabbi” (“my lord”), it is worth noting that in Matthew’s Gospel only Judas addresses Jesus by this title (26:25,49).
For Christians, who are to serve one another humbly as members of the same family, these displays are negative examples.
Wednesday, March 25
Zechariah 3: Chief among the priests who returned from Babylon was the high priest Jeshua, or Joshua, whose father Jehozadak had been carried away to Babylon back in 586 (1 Chronicles 6:15). Jeshua’s name invariably appears second among the returning exiles (Ezra 2:2; Nehemiah 7:7; 12:1,10,26), right after Zerubbabel, the governor appointed by Cyrus to oversee Jerusalem’s restoration. In the prophecies of Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Jeshua are paired as the spiritual and political leaders of the people, as we shall see in Chapter 4.
In the present chapter the prophet beholds the high priest Jeshua standing before God with an angel and with Satan. Satan is doing for Jeshua what he did for Job, namely, “opposing” him, saying bad things to God about him (verse 1; cf. Job 1:9-11; 2:4-5). In both these cases Satan is the “accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). In the case of Jeshua, Satan’s accusation had to do with the “filthy garments” of the high priest (verse 3), which signify his unworthiness. This may refer to his personal unworthiness and/or to the unworthiness of the people that he represents at the altar. Either and both interpretations will fit the context. The question under debate is, can such a priest, so improperly vested, properly offer sacrifices to the Almighty?
At this point the angel of the Lord rebuked Satan for his accusation against the priest: “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!” (Zechariah 3:2) (In case anyone inquires, “The Lord rebuke you!” is the execration regularly preferred by angels who are obliged to deal with Satan; cf. Jude 9.) Jeshua may be taken to represent any and all of God’s servants aware of their total unworthiness as they come to worship. Their hearts are full of such sentiments as, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8), “I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof” (7:6), and “God, be merciful to me a sinner! (18:13). Satan, of course, is ever at hand on such occasions, ready even further to discourage these saints who feel guilty in their filthy garments, suggesting to their minds that they may as well give the whole thing up as useless. But what do the angels say? “Take away the filthy garments from him. . . . Let them put a clean turban on his head.” We do not come before God with any cleanliness of our own. “See,” the Lord says, “I remove your iniquity from you, and I will clothe you with rich robes” (verses 4-5). That is to say, we approach the worship of God only in the pure grace of our redemption. “Is not this,” asks our good angel, “a branch plucked from the fire?” (3:2) In the literal context, this plucking refers to redemption from the Babylonian Captivity. In its Christian context it refers to a more radically redemptive plucking from a far more serious fire. In either case, when someone is plucked from the fire, he tends to be a bit smudged up, and his clothes are in pretty bad shape. Not to worry, the angel says, God can handle that.
Psalm 85: “Unto us a Child is born,” the lyric prophet wrote, “unto us a Son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). And he wrote these things with respect to the Incarnation of the divine Son becoming a human Child. Both aspects of this Christian mystery, which Isaiah perceived so lucidly (cf. John 12:41), were likewise seen by the Wise Men who came with adoration to welcome this Newcomer to the scene, the divine Son and human Child. St. Ambrose of Milan comments on these Wise Men: “When they looked upon the little one in the stable, they said: ‘Unto us a Child is born.’ And when they beheld His star, they exclaimed: ‘Unto us a Son is given.’ On the one hand, a gift from earth, and on the other a gift from heaven, for both are one Person, perfect in both respects, with no change in His divinity, and no diminution of His humanity. Only one Person did these Wise Men adore, and to one and the same did they present their gifts, showing that He who was beheld in the stall was the very Lord of the stars” (De Fide 3.8.54).
Psalm 85 (Greek and Latin 84) is a further canticle honoring both facets of the Incarnation, for the latter is that history-defining encounter of two worlds, wherein “the Lord will grant His mercy, and our earth shall give its fruit.” “Truth has arisen from the earth,” we pray in this psalm, speaking of the Child born unto us, “and righteousness has stooped down from the heaven,” we go on, telling of the Son given unto us. This union is the sacrament of God become Man, in which “mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have shared a kiss.”
Thus, still following St. Ambrose, when mankind cried out in Psalm 85, “O Lord, show us Your mercy, and grant us Your salvation,” it was a prayer for the Incarnation, in which “He, who is God’s Son, is born as Mary’s Child and given to us” (op. cit. 3.8.56).
Such, ultimately, is the meaning of the lines with which we begin this same psalm: “Kindly have You been to Your land, O Lord, bringing back the captivity of Jacob. You have forgiven Your people their iniquities; You have covered all their sins. An end have You given to Your anger; You abandoned the fury of Your wrath.” All these blessings of reconciliation between two realms were accomplished, when the Father sent His only-begotten Son, “that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Eph. 1:10).
In this mystery of God’s reconciliation, then, is fulfilled the prophecy of our psalm: “For His salvation is near to all those who fear Him, so that glory may inhabit (kataskenosai) our earth.” This glory inhabiting our earth is what was first seen when “the Word became flesh and dwelt (eskenosen) among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:14, 18).
The Father sent His Son in response to the most profound aspirations of men’s hearts, because Isaiah spoke for all mankind when he pleaded: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! / That You would come down” (64:1). Driven from God’s presence in paradise and retained in bondage to unclean spirits by reason of transgression, the human race with Adam and Eve cried out in our psalm: “Convert us, O God of our salvation, and turn Your fury from us. Will You be angry with us forever? Or from generation to generation prolong Your wrath? O God, You will convert us and restore us to life, and Your people shall rejoice in You.”
Christ, then, “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14), and likewise our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). It is of these things that our psalm says: “Righteousness shall go before Him, and He will set His footsteps in the way.” This is the Christ who “came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near” (Eph. 2:17). This the Christ, “being both begotten of the Father before all ages, and created from the Virgin in these final times” (Ambrose, op. cit. 3.8.60).
We pray with confidence, then, in the words of our psalm: “I shall hear what the Lord God speaks within me, for peace will He speak to His people, and to His saints, and to those who turn their hearts to Him.”
Thursday, March 26
Zechariah 4: As in other prophetic accounts (cf. Amos 7:8; 8:2), a dia
logue of questions and answers accompanies this vision of Zechariah. This is apparently necessary, as the vision is complex and detailed.
The image of the lamp stand is surely related to the lamp stand in the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-37) and in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 7:49). From the bas relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, we know that the second temple also had such a lamp stand. The lamp stand of Zechariah’s vision is not entirely identified with these, however. Being visionary, it is differently contoured. The seven lamps represent the fullness of the God’s providential knowledge of the world (verse 10), of which the constant worship in God’s temple at Jerusalem served as a sign.
These lamps were nourished by the oil provided by the two ministries of the secular ruler and the priest, Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verses 10-14). We recall that both the kings and the priests of Israel were anointed with the same oil that burned in the seven-branch lamp stand (Exodus 27:20; 30:23-24; Leviticus 24:2). They are “sons of oil.”
In their historical context, the efforts of these men seemed weak, but they acted by the power of God’s Spirit (verse 6). Consequently, no matter how tiny appeared their efforts, let no one despise “the day of small things” (verse 10), which refers to their laying of the foundation for the new temple (verse 9). This foundation stone of God’s house (verse 7), which is mystically identical with the seven-faceted stone in 3:9, should be viewed as a Christological prophetic reference. Much of the imagery of this chapter will appear later in Revelation 11.
Psalm 69: It is entirely appropriate that we pray this psalm as we draw nigh to Holy Week, because from the very beginning the Christian reading of Psalm 69 (Greek and Latin 68) has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the Lord’s suffering and death. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come even unto my soul. . . . I have come to the depths of the sea, and the flood has submerged me,” prays the Man of sorrows who described His approaching Passion as the baptism with which He must be baptized (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50; Romans 6:3).
This same Sufferer goes on to pray: “Zeal for Your house has consumed me,” a verse explicitly cited in the New Testament with respect to the Lord’s purging of the temple (John 2:17). In context this consuming of the Lord was a reference to His coming Passion; He went on to say to those who were plotting to kill Him: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In saying this, the evangelist noted, “He was speaking of the temple of His body” (vv. 19, 21).
The very next line of the psalms says: “The reproaches of those who reproached You have fallen on me,” a verse later cited by St. Paul as bearing on the sufferings of the Lord. The apostle’s lapidary and understated comment was that “even Christ did not please Himself” (Romans 15:3). In this passage St. Paul could obviously presume a common Christian understanding of Psalm 68, even in a congregation that he had not yet visited.
Still later in our psalm stands the line: “Let their dwelling be deserted, and let no one live in their tabernacles.” Even prior to the Pentecostal outpouring, the Church knew this verse for a reference to Judas Iscariot (cf. Acts 1:20), that dark and tragic figure who guided the enemies of Jesus and betrayed his Lord with a kiss.
Psalm 68 is the prayer of Him “who, in the days of His flesh . . . offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). The Christian Church has ever been persuaded that Psalm 68 expresses the sentiments of that soul “exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). In Psalm 69 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of His Passion: “Deliver me from those that hate me, and from the depths of the waters. Let not the flood of water submerge me, nor the depth swallow me down, nor the mouth of the pit close over me.”
This is the Christ who in dereliction sought in vain the human companionship of His closest friends during the vigil prior to His arrest: “What? Could you not watch with Me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40). Psalm 69 speaks of this disappointment as well: “My heart waited for contempt and misery; I hoped for someone to share my sorrow, but there was no one; someone to console me, but I found none.”
According to all four Gospels, the dying Christ was offered some sort of bitter beverage, oxsos, a sour wine or vinegar, as He hung on the Cross. This is the very word used at the end of the following verse of Psalm 69: “And for my food they laid out gall, and for my drink they gave me vinegar.”
But there is another dimension to the Passion of the Lord—the resolve of His victory. Even as He was being arrested, His enemies were unable to stand upright in His presence (cf. John 18:6). This was the Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). No man takes the Lord’s life from Him, for He has power to lay it down and to take it up again (cf. John 10:18). This is the Christ whom death could not hold, who descended a very conqueror into hell to loose the bonds of them that sat in darkness, and who “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19).
This sense of Christ’s victory also dominates the final lines of Psalm 69: “I am poor and distressed, but the salvation of Your face, O God, has upheld me. I will praise the name of God with song; and I will magnify Him with praise.”
The victory of Christ is the foundation of the Church, the assembly of those described when our psalm says, “Let the poor see and rejoice. Seek God, and your soul will live. . . . For the Lord will save Zion, and the cities of Judah will be built, and they shall dwell there and hold it by inheritance, and the seed of His servants will possess it.”
Friday, March 27
Zechariah 5: In this chapter, which also uses dialogue to interpret what is seen, there are two visions. In the first (verses 1-4), the prophet sees a flying scroll considerably larger than one would expect; indeed, it is the same size as the portico in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:3). This scroll contains the curses attendant on those who violate the terms of God’s covenant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:18-20). This scroll represents a permanent warning of the dangers of infidelity.
In the second vision (verses 5-11), the prophet sees “Wickedness” portrayed as a woman carried in a basket. Unlike the very large scroll in the first vision, the present vision gives us a very small basket. It holds only an ephah, yet this woman can fit into it. She must be a pretty insignificant woman—this Wickedness—and the angelic figures contemptuously shove her down into the basket and enclose it with a leaden lid. Representing the power of Babylon, which the Bible holds in contempt, the woman and her basket are deposited in the Babylonian plain (verse 11; cf. Genesis 11:2). This is the same woman, by the way, who looks so much larger and more impressive in Revelation 17.
Matthew 23:23-38: The seven (or eight) “woes” in this, the Lord’s last discourse in Matthew, are to be contrasted with the seven (or eight) “blesseds” with which the first discourse began (5:3-12).
The scribes and Pharisees are censured for neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah while concentrating on small particulars of lesser moment (verse 23). The comparison of the camel and the gnat (verse 24) is reminiscent of the camel and the needle’s eye (19:24).
The burden of the Lord’s judgment falls on the failure of these hypocrites to go deeper than the mere surface letter of observance—deeper in the Torah, deeper into their own hearts, where all is corruption and death (verse 27). They clean the outside, but the neglected inside is in sorry shape (verse 25). They stay away from an interior
transformation that would render valuable the observance of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith. This criticism, with its accent on interiority, is an echo and summary of what Israel’s prophets taught over the centuries.
Hence, these leaders deserve the “woe” that those prophets spoke against earlier infidelities (just to limit ourselves to the 8th century, cf. Amos 5:18-20; 6:1-7; Isaiah, 5 passim; 19:1-3; 28:1-4,15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4; Micah 2:1-4).
The gulf between external observance and internal corruption, which is the very essence of hypocrisy, is the chief and unifying complaint that the Lord voices against these Jewish leaders.
In addressing these hypocrites as “serpents, offspring of vipers,” the Lord takes up the early censure by John the Baptist near the Gospel’s beginning (3:7).