Friday, August 28
Psalm 22: Of all the psalms, Psalm 22 (Greek and Latin 21) is par excellence the canticle of the Lord’s suffering and death. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is described as praying the opening line of this psalm as He hangs on the Cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). In Luke, on the other hand, the last recorded words of Jesus on the Cross are a line from Psalm 31 (Greek and Latin 30): “Into Your hands I commit My spirit” (23:46). From a juxtaposition of these two texts there arose in Christian sentiment the popular story that Jesus, while He hung on the Cross, silently recited all the lines of the Psalter that lie between these two verses.
Whatever is to be said of that story, there is no doubt about the importance of Psalm 22 in reference to the Lord’s suffering and death. Not only did Jesus pray this psalm’s opening line on His gibbet of pain; other lines of it are also interpreted by the Church, even by the Evangelists themselves, as prophetic references to details in the drama of Holy Friday.
Consider, for instance, this verse of Psalm 22: “All who gazed at Me derided Me. With their lips they spoke and wagged their heads: ‘He hoped on the Lord. Let Him deliver him. Let Him save him, since He approves of him.’” One can hardly read this verse without recalling what is described in Matthew: “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, . . . ‘If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, . . . ‘He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him’” (27:39–43).
The Gospels likewise tell of the soldiers dividing the garments of Jesus at the time of His Crucifixion. St. John’s description of this event is worth considering at length, because he actually quotes our psalm verbatim as a fulfilled prophecy:
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also His tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. They said therefore among themselves, ”Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be,“ that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says: ‘They divided My garments among them, / And for My clothing they cast lots’” (19:23, 24).
Moreover, if Holy Church thinks of the Lord Himself as praying this psalm on the Cross, such an interpretation is amply justified by a later verse that says: “Like a potsherd has my strength been scorched, and my tongue cleaved to my palate.” Hardly can the Church read this line without calling to mind the Lord who said from the Cross: “I thirst” (John 19:28).
And as she thinks of the nails supporting the Lord’s body on the tree of redemption, the Church recognizes the voice that speaks yet another line of our psalm: “They have pierced my hands and feet; they have numbered all my bones.”
In addition, according to St. John, at the foot of the Cross stood the Mother of the Lord, a loyal disciple to the last, her soul transfixed by the sword that aged Simeon prophesied in the temple when she first presented the Child to God. To her the Lord Himself now makes reference in this psalm. Speaking of that consecration, Jesus says to His heavenly Father of his earthly mother, “You were He that drew me from the womb, ever my hope from my mother’s breasts. To You was I handed over from the womb. From the belly of my mother, You are my God.”
Outside of the Gospels, the New Testament’s most vivid references to the Lord’s Passion are arguably those in Hebrews, which speaks of the Lord’s sharing our flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death” (2:14). Quoting Psalm 22 in this context of the Passion, this author tells us that Jesus “is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren; / In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You’” (2:11, 12).
Finally, just as each of the Lord’s three predictions of the Passion ends with a prediction of the Resurrection (cf. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), this psalm of the Passion appropriately finishes with the voice of victory and the growth of the Church: “My spirit lives for Him; my seed will serve Him. The coming generation shall be herald for the Lord, declaring His righteousness to a people yet unborn, whom the Lord created.”
Saturday, August 29
The Beheading of John the Baptist: The Lord’s assessment of John the Baptist as “more than a prophet” was no denial that John the Baptist was a prophet (Luke 7:26). Indeed, He said, “there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (7:28). A common persuasion on this point commenced early. John’s own father “was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied” (1:67), with respect to his newborn son: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest” (1:76). John’s contemporaries, moreover, certainly regarded him as a prophet (20:6), as even Herod knew (Matthew 14:5).
Although our Lord said that “among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11), only Luke thought to provide us with the name of the woman who gave John birth. In fact, Luke went into some detail to tell of that lady named Elizabeth and the circumstances surrounding her unexpected conception of a son in her advanced years. The Angel Gabriel, who had been somewhat quiet in Israel after the days of Daniel, appeared to Elizabeth’s husband and predicted the pregnancy (Luke 1:13).
Moreover, God clearly intended to leave a special mark on John even before his birth. Six months into the gestation, Elizabeth received another visitor, this one human, her young kinswoman from Galilee named Mary. At Mary’s greeting, John’s mother sensed another Presence, as “the babe leaped in her womb” (1:41). Mary, in fact, like a new Ark of the Covenant, bore within her body God’s newly incarnate Son, whose Father chose her greeting and that moment to sanctify the unborn John the Baptist. This event fulfilled an earlier prediction of Gabriel with respect to John: “He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (1:15). In drawing our attention to John’s prophetic consecration before his birth, Luke portrays him in the like-ness of the Prophet Jeremiah, to whom God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; / Before you were born I sanctified you; / I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
If John resembled Jeremiah, however, his resemblance to the Prophet
Elijah was even more pronounced. Once again, it was the Angel Gabriel, who used of John the very words with which the Prophet Malachi fore- told the return of Elijah: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16–17; Malachi 4:5–6).
Since Elijah’s return had been predicted in the last of the Old Testament’s prophetic books, there was considerable expectation on the matter, even among the Lord’s Apostles (Matthew 17:10). Although John himself denied that he really was Elijah in a literal sense (John 1:21), he surely felt some affinity to that earlier prophet; he even dressed like him (Matthew 3:4 [and 11:8]; 2 Kings 1:8).
Whatever John felt about the matter, nonetheless, Jesus Himself asserted that “Elijah has come already,” and, when He asserted this, “the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:12–13). John’s affinity to Elijah was more than haberdashery, however, for his appearance in this world introduced the days in which “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (11:12–14).
The “violence” associated with John was readily discerned in his asceticism, which prompted his enemies to say, “He has a demon” (11:18). Violence was also evident in his apocalyptic preaching, all about “the wrath to come,” with axes laid to the roots of trees and the burning of chaff with unquenchable fire (3:7–12). John’s hearers could never tell
God that they had not been warned!
One of these was Herod Antipas, whom Herodias manipulated into beheading the violent John (Mark 6:14–29). Resenting the Baptist’s condemnation of her “meaningful and fulfilling,” albeit adulterous, relationship with Antipas, Herodias had longed for that day of vengeance.
Indeed, in the New Testament triangle of the anemic Antipas, the hateful Herodias, and the relentless John, we have a striking parallel to the Old Testament triangle of the anemic Ahab, the hateful Jezebel, and, of course, the unrelenting Elijah.
Sunday, August 30
Psalm 148: It was the common custom of the ancient Church to pray the last three of the psalms as a unit during Matins. In the West they traditionally follow the daily appointed psalmody and Old Testament canticle, all of these components joined with a single antiphon. In the East, where they are chanted with a separate antiphon (“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord”), and finished with special stikhera for each day, these three psalms come immediately prior to the Great Doxology, the Gloria in Excelsis. In both instances Psalms 148—150 form a sort of climax to the psalmody, which is exactly how they function in the Psalter itself.
Psalm 148 is a summons directed to all of creation to praise God, its constantly repeated exhortation being allelu, “praise ye.” In structure and imagery Psalm 148 has great affinities to the Greek form of the hymn of the three young men in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3:52–90, and in the Western liturgical tradition this latter is very often, and always on Sundays, the Old Testament canticle immediately preceding this psalm itself.
Psalm 148, in calling on all creation to praise the Lord, also follows much the same sequence as the fiery furnace song in Daniel: heaven, sun, moon, stars, angels, waters above the heavens, followed by the various elements and formations on the earth, etc. A similar sequence is found in other biblical poetry, such as Job 28 and Sirach 43. The general format for this sequence is derived, of course, from the created order in Genesis 1. Indeed, the doctrine of creation is precisely the reason given for the praise: “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He spoke, and they came to be; He gave command, and they were created. He established them forever and ever. He decreed His precept, and it will not pass away.” One may pray this psalm, then, as Genesis 1 adapted to the form of praise.
But we are not simply Jews, and this praise must be properly Christian; that is to say, it must be prayer firmly anchored in the “fullness of time,” the full Christian faith, most particularly faith in the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Except for His Resurrection, after all, the whole created world is “subjected to futility,” held in “bondage of corruption” (Rom. 8:20, 21; cf. Luke 4:6). It is only in Christ that the created order is put right and set on the path to transfiguration. When, in this psalm, we summon the whole created order to praise God, we are eliciting a Spirit-given impulse that lies already at the heart of the world, “for the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19).
Such a consideration makes Psalm 148 especially appropriate for Sunday, which is at once the first day of creation and the “eighth day” of the new creation inaugurated by the Resurrection of our Lord. Truly the “Lord” being praised in each verse of this psalm is the risen Jesus, whose victory over death constitutes the final vindication of the created order itself. In short, all Christian consideration of the created world will instinctively regard it through the properly defining lens of the Resurrection.
If the whole world of spirit and matter is called upon to join in a common praise of God, this praise is concentrated in the Church, which is explicitly spoken of in the psalm’s final lines: “This is the song for all His saints, the children of Israel, the people who draw near to Him.”
In the Church creation itself finds its destiny and proper form through the Resurrection of Christ: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible . . . All things were created through Him and for Him . . . and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church . . . . ” (Col. 1:16–18).
Consequently, the more ample measure of this psalm is perhaps the “sign” of the Child-bearing Woman who appears in the heavens, for it is her forces that engage that old serpentine foe of the whole created world (Rev. 12). Should the moon, then, be admonished to acclaim the Lord? Doubtless so, for on the moon she abides who bears the Messiah. And should the sun be summoned to an outburst of blessing? Without question, for with the luster of the sun is that Lady invested. And the stars, will they be included in the heavenly song? Surely so, for the stars form the crown that garlands her brow. Prefigured and modeled on the very Mother of Jesus, she is that new Eve who appears in history as the last and the finest of all that God has made. It is her voice, finally, that fills all creation with the praise of God.
Monday, August 31
Judges 3: The career of Ehud, Israel’s defender against Moab, comes to an end in Judges 3:30, with the note that “the land had rest for eighty years.” The fourth chapter begins with the note, “When Ehud was dead.” The two verses would seem to provide an untarnished and seamless narrative transition.
They don’t, however, because between them falls another verse, the final verse of chapter 3, which introduces yet another character, as though out of nowhere: “After [Ehud] was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred men of the Philistines with an ox goad; and he also delivered Israel.” Just who was this Shamgar, of whom we are told so very little?
Well, the Bible places Shamgar, like Deborah and Barak, after Ehud, ann arrangement which would make him roughly a contemporary of those two. This impression is later confirmed by the mention of him in Deborah’s canticle in Judges 5:6. In addition, we can fix Shamgar geographically, because the Sacred Text tells us that he fought against the Philistines, a fact which places him in the west of the Holy Land. Thus, while Deborah and Barak were occupied with Israel’s enemies to the east, Shamgar was dealing with those in the west.
But there is more. Shamgar is called the “son of Anath,” a designation that appears not to be a patronymic, because Anath is not a masculine name. It is more likely a reference to Shamgar’s birthplace, the Canaanite city of Beth-Anath (“house of Anath”), which served under tribute to Israel since the time of Joshua (Judges 1:33). Consequently, Shamgar was likely not an Israelite by blood. He certainly belonged to the chosen people by allegiance, however, and Israel’s enemies were his own.
Some biblical historians, realizing “son of Anath” (ben-Anath) is a geographical and not a patronymic reference, propose emending the Hebrew text to “of Beth-Anath” (beth-Anath), which would require changing only a single letter. Even this is unnecessary, however, because we know of another “son of Anath” a century or so earlier, during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II; he was a Syrian sea captain allied to Egypt.
Thus, the name itself was not unique, and no emendation of the Hebrew text is required to make Beth-Anath Shamgar’s city of origin.
This Canaanite city Anath and the Greek city Athens were both named after the same patronal goddess, a lady well known in all the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean, including Africa. The Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra indicate that she was a goddess of war for the peoples of the Middle East, and Shamgar showed himself worthy of that martial tradition.
However, this does not mean that Shamgar was a warrior. Indeed,
he seems to have preferred farming, as indicated by the reference to his
ox goad. It is entirely reasonable to picture Shamgar—when there were
no pesky Philistines around to distract him—patiently pacing hour by
hour behind the plow, steadily looking straight ahead and not looking
back (Luke 9:62).
Resting on the plowshare, meanwhile, lay the pointed end of a sturdy piece of lumber, roughly eight feet long and about two inches in diameter at the handle end, which Shamgar, while he plowed, kept tucked under his arm. Should the draught animals slow down more than he thought proper, the plowman let the thicker end of the long pole drop down into his hand and encourage them with a modest thrust with its point. Over time the oxen learned that it was hard to kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5; 26:14).
Shamgar was a steady, patient fellow who loved to till the soil, a man so quiet that the Bible tells us not a single word he ever spoke. He was also a pacific man, who did not even own a weapon. For all that, Shamgar was not someone safely messed with. He was particularly ill-disposed toward the Philistines, those recent invaders from Crete, uncouth and troublesome fools who, neglecting their own fields, bothered and wearied honest plowmen during working hours. Shamgar expressed his annoyance, over the years, by employing his trusty ox goad to dispatch some six hundred of the rascals to the nether regions. Six hundred was a respectable figure, evidence of a conscientious citizen doing his part to preserve decency and promote public order. It earned Shamgar his brief place in the Bible, where he appears as a kind of Semite Cincinnatus, occasionally obliged to interrupt the simple joys of agriculture in order to deal with knaves and ne’er-do-wells.
Tuesday, September 1
Judges 4: Early in the history of the chosen people’s occupation of the Promised Land appears the matriarchal and prophetic Deborah, the only woman listed among the “judges” that guided Israel’s various tribes during the two centuries or so between the conquest and the rise of Saul. Most of what we know of Deborah comes from Judges 4—5, an historical account followed by a canticle showing signs of great antiquity. This material, prior to its incorporation into the literary sources of the Book of
Judges, was probably preserved for a long time in Ephraim’s narrative traditions at the shrine of Bethel, not far from which stood the palm tree under which Deborah was known to sit and deliver oracular guidance to the people. Although we are not explicitly told so, the reference to forty years of peace in Judges 5:31 has suggested to some readers that this was the length of Deborah’s ministry.
St. Augustine wrote of Deborah: “The Spirit of God was active through her, because she was a prophetess. Her prophecy, on the other hand, is less than clear, nor could I, without an overly long exposition, demonstrate that it pertained to Christ”—per illam Dei Spiritus id agebat; nam etiam prophetissa erat, cuius prophetia minus aperta est, quam ut possimus eam sine diuturna expositione de Christo demonstrare prolatam” (The City of Gpd 18.15).
The story of Deborah is chiefly preoccupied with two themes: soteriology and the moral life.
First, soteriology. The Deborah story is mainly an account of God’s deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies (“And the Lord routed Sisera”—Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of God’s deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of God’s repeated deliverance of His people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.
With regard to the theme of the moral life, on the other hand, one readily admits that this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all! In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between Deborah and the timid Barak.
Thus, St. Jerome observed that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. He went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged Apostles.
It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women.
Their comments in this respect are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself. Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f (“Go . . . deploy . . . take”) are met by the poltroonish foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” The very sounds of the Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah (lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak (’im telki ‘immi wahalakti, we’im lo’ telki ‘immi lo’elek).
This highly amusing contrast is further heightened by the irony that Barak’s very name means “lightning bolt.” The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, having a difficult time persuading this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again:
Qum—“Up!” (4:14). This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that Christian readers have traditionally seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. On the other hand (if one may safely venture the remark), the woman in this contrast seems to be quite a bit more reliable than the man.
Wednesday, September 2
Exodus 15:1-18: The people of God have been hymn-singers right from the beginning. The singing of hymns is the Bible’s normal response to the outpouring of salvation; cf. Judges 5, 2 Samuel 22, Judith 10, many Psalms, etc. This particular canticle, which has been sung by Holy Church at her Pascha vigil from time immemorial, celebrates the Lord’s victory over the oppression inspired of idolatry. It should be thought of as the song of the newly baptized, standing at their baptismal waterside, their demonic enemies drowned in its depths.
It is not only the song of Moses and Miriam, but it is also the song of the Lamb, a prefiguration of that heavenly chant sung by the “sea of glass mingled with fire,” sung after the “last plagues,” sung by those who, with “harps of God,” “have victory over the beast”: “Great and marvelous are Your works, Lord God Almighty! Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!” (Revelation 15:1-3).
The encounter of Israel with God on Mount Sinai, which begins in chapter 19, will be bracketed between two sequences of desert stories, which provide a narrative frame in which the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai forms the center. We begin the first of these two sequences now, and the second will commence in Numbers 20. These two desert sequences contain some striking parallel narratives: the peoples’ murmuring (Exodus 15, 16, 17; Numbers 14, 16, 17), the manna and the quail (Exodus 16; Numbers 11), the water from the rock (Exodus 17; Numbers 20).
The murmuring we find at the end of this chapter and into the next is nothing new, of course; the people have been murmuring since the Book of Exodus began, and we will be noting more about it as the account progresses. Here the murmuring is heard with respect to thirst, which is notoriously a problem in the desert.
The murmuring is rebellious, for the people’s anger is turned on Moses and is recalcitrant to his authority. They no longer “believed the Lord and Moses His servant” (14:31). This story is taken up in John 6, where the “murmuring in the desert” is directed against Jesus. The descendents of the murmurers in Exodus, immediately after the feeding of the people by miraculous bread in the desert, begin to murmur and ask for a sign (John 6:30). Then begins the Lord’s Bread of Life discourse, in which He contrasts the ancient manna with the superior bread of His own Eucharistic flesh (John 6:48-58).
Meanwhile, the rebels continue to murmur (John 6:41,43). Just as the people murmured against the authority of Moses, now they murmur against the authority of Jesus. It should also be remembered that it was precisely in the context of the Holy Eucharist that St. Paul warned against the sin of murmuring (1 Corinthians 10:10).
Thursday, September 3
Judges 6: It is a point of historical irony that the military success of Deborah and Barak, narrated in Judges 4—5, is what produced the crisis faced by Gideon in the chapters that follow. By his overthrow of the powerful Canaanite kings, Barak had removed a formidable military presence which prevented various tribes of Bedouin nomads, notably the
Midianites and their confederates, from ravaging the cultivated fields, orchards, vineyards, and granaries of the Promised Land. Now, with the elimination of that impediment, those marauders could ride in on their camels and pillage the countryside at will.
Fearsome and unscrupulous predators, the Midianites were also cunning, for they habitually scheduled their invasions at harvest times, causing economic disaster, even famine, among the Israelites (cf. Ruth 1:1). Judges 6 describes how the Lord raised up Gideon as a champion to meet this crisis. Gideon’s task, however, would be more than merely political and military, because the crisis itself was more than political and military.
In the Bible’s analysis, the theological root of the problem was Israel’s infidelity to the Covenant of Mount Sinai. Beyond the political aspects of their plight, it was clear to Gideon that God was punishing the Israelites for their involvement in the worship of Canaanite gods, whose chief was Baal. Indeed, Gideon’s own father was a worshipper of Baal. The success of Gideon’s mission would depend, therefore, on his first addressing that theological root of the difficulty.
He did so at once, taking ten men to assist him in the overthrow of the Baal shrine maintained by his father. From that point on, events began to unroll pretty rapidly, for a large invasion force of Midianites and others suddenly arrived from the east, crossed the Jordan River, and camped in the fertile valley of Jezreel. Probably impressed by the sheer boldness of Gideon, manifest in his attack on the worship of Baal, his countrymen spontaneously accepted his leadership to meet the impending attack.
It was clear to everyone, anyway, that Gideon was in charge of the situation, for the Spirit of the Lord took decisive hold of him (Judges
6:34). The Hebrew verb used to describe this transformation is especially striking, for it literally says that the Spirit “clothed itself” (labshah) with Gideon. This expression, sometimes used for the putting on of armor, indicates that Gideon would serve as the instrument of God’s Spirit in the events to come.
The transformation of Gideon was evident to all. Whereas fear had prompted him to use the cover of night in destroying Baal’s shrine (6:27),
Gideon now began to act with open, executive boldness, sending out messengers to the other Israelites for their assistance in the impending battle.
Three scenes in particular have rendered most memorable the story
of Gideon. First, there was a consultation of the Lord by means of “put-
ting out a fleece” (6:36–40). The purpose of this experiment was to
determine whether Gideon’s resolve was truly of God, and not simply a
human impulse for glory and vengeance. Just as Israel’s crisis was radi-
cally spiritual, its resolution would have to be radically spiritual, so
Gideon wanted to be quite certain that the new strength he felt was
truly of the Holy Spirit, and not just a burst of what we today call
adrenaline. It is most important not to confuse the flesh and the Spirit,
especially during a crisis.
Second, there was the curious exercise by which, at the Lord’s bidding, Gideon reduced the size of his gathered army. Indeed, the reduction was of ridiculous proportions—from thirty-two thousand to three hundred (7:1–8)! If this victory was to be truly of God, it was important that no human being could take credit for it, because the Sprit of God is not to be identified with any human force or fleshly impulse.
Third, there was Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites by the singularly improbable means of the breaking of jars and the blowing of trumpets
(7:15–23). This latter action is, of course, reminiscent of Joshua’s over- throw of the walls of Jericho and conveys the identical message. Namely, that God, alone victorious over His enemies, alone deserves the praise, a truth to which Gideon himself bore witness by his subsequent refusal to become king (8:22–23). This was a lesson God’s humbled people needed to learn, and their defeat of the Midianites would be in vain if they did not learn it.
Friday, September 4
Psalm 31: The correct sense of Psalm 31 (Greek and Latin 30) is indicated in verse 5: “Into Your hand I commend my spirit.” This verse, according to Luke 23:46, was the final prayer of our Lord from the Cross, and I take it to indicate the proper “voice” of this whole psalm. It is the prayer of “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2), speaking to His Father in the context of His sufferings and death. This psalm is part of His prayer of faith.
In making this psalm our own, we Christians are subsumed into the voice and prayer of Christ. We partake of His own relationship to the Father. No one, after all, knows the Father except the Son and the one “to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27). Our only access to God is through Christ and the mediation of His atoning blood. Our incorporation into Christ is the foundation of all our prayer. Only in Christ do we call God our Father. The only prayer that passes beyond the veil, to His very throne, is prayer saturated with the redeeming blood of Christ. This is the prayer that cries out more eloquently than the blood of Abel.
In this psalm, then, the voice of Christ becomes our own voice: “In You, O Lord, I put my trust, let me never be put to shame. Deliver me in Your righteousness. . . . You have redeemed me, Lord God of truth. . . . But I trust in the Lord. I will be glad and rejoice in Your mercy. . . . But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord; I say ‘You are my God.’ . . . Oh, how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You, which You have prepared for those who trust in You.” The righteousness of God is our salvation in Christ, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness” (Rom. 3:25). Likewise, this trust in God is the source of our sanctification, as in the words of the standard Orthodox prayer: “O God . . . who sanctify those who put their trust in You.”
This committing of our souls to God in loving trust is not just one of the various things we do as Christians; it is the essential feature of our life in Christ: “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (1 Pet. 4:19).
In this psalm we enter into the sentiments and thoughts of Jesus in His sufferings. We see the Passion “from the inside,” as it were. There is the plot, recorded in the Gospels, to take His life (cf. Mark 3:6; 14:1): “Pull me out of the net that they have secretly laid for me. . . . Fear is on every side; while they take counsel together against me, they scheme to take away my life.” There are the false witnesses rising against Him (cf. Mark 14:55–59): “Let the lying lips be put to silence, which speak insolent things proudly and contemptuously against the righteous.” We learn of the flight of His friends and the mockery of His enemies (cf. Mark 14:50; 15:29–32): “I am a reproach among all my enemies, but especially among my neighbors, and am repulsive to my acquaintances; those who see me outside flee from me. I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind.” There is, moreover, that awesome mystery by which God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21), “so the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors’” (Mark 15:28): “For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away.”
The reason that the voice of Christ in His Passion must become our own voice is that His Passion itself provides the pattern for our own lives: “But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues” (Matt. 10:17). “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake” (24:9). We are to be baptized with His baptism; the bitter cup that He drinks we too are to taste in our own souls. The prayer of His Passion becomes our own, because “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).
Throughout this psalm there is also an ongoing changing of tenses, back and forth between past and future. We have been redeemed, but we still pray for our final deliverance. Even as we taste the coming enjoyment of God’s eternal presence, hope’s struggle in this world goes on: “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom. 8:24).