Friday, February 5
Matthew 10:16-26: Four animals are mentioned in the first verse, all of them for their symbolic value.
Although this initial mission is only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is significant that the “nations” are mentioned in 10:18; again, this foreshadows the Great Commission given at the end of Matthew.
These verses make it clear that the proclamation of the gospel by the Church will be met with resistance, just as we saw to be the case in chapters 8 and 9. Like Jesus, the disciples will be “handed over” to “councils” (synedria). This description, contained here in prophecy, was very much the experience of the Christians whom Matthew knew when he was writing these words. Similar experiences are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
Psalm 73: While many of the psalms are congregational hymns manifestly composed for public worship, Psalm 73 (Greek and Latin 72) is one of those showing signs of a more private origin, taking its rise in the intimate reflections of the pondering heart. Psalm 73 is concerned with much the same moral problem as Job and Habakkuk—“If God is just and on the side of justice, and if also God is almighty, why do wickedness and injustice seem to prevail?”
Already in this, its most elementary moral presupposition—its basic sentiment of hope, expecting goodness and justice to prevail over evil and injustice—Psalm 73 stands radically at odds with much of our present popular philosophy. Indeed, one of the more characteristic features of the modern world is its growing inability to presume that the moral order, including the social order, is rooted in the metaphysical order, described by Colin Gunton as “the order of being as a whole.” Relatively few people in today’s culture seem any longer able to presuppose that they live in a moral universe where the differences between right and wrong, justice and injustice, are fixed in the composition of reality.
Like the ancient Sophists, those ethical relativists who perceived no essential relationship between objective reality and ethical norm, and thus no necessary association between nature and culture, many thinkers today, not viewing the universe in fixed moral terms, would find no reason for surprise at the apparent prevalence of evil.
For modern man, after all, as for those ancient foes of Socrates, justice is only what any given culture determines justice to be. Justice is configured only as a society decides to configure it. Thus, there is no way for injustice to prevail, for if a society approves or prefers a certain kind of behavior, then the latter conduct automatically becomes just.
Strictly speaking, then, since for modern man correct behavior consists solely in the acquiescence to purely cultural norms, there can really be no such thing as an unjust society. That is to say, whatever prevails in a society is necessarily just, because society is the sole and ultimate arbiter of justice. In contemporary sociology and other behavioral disciplines this presumption rises to the level of an axiomatic first principle, quite beyond academic controversy.
Moreover, in a world in which only presumed rule is the survival of the fittest, why would anyone anticipate that justice and goodness would prevail? In short, a major conversion of mind would be required of modern man even to appreciate the moral problem posed in this psalm, much less to deal with that problem philosophically or, yet less, to make it the inquiry of prayer.
For Psalm 73, however, since it presupposes the identification of the world’s Creator with the Author of the moral law, the prevalence of evil in the world is the stuff of a crisis. Even as the psalm begins, the crisis has already been worked through, so to speak, and the prayer simply reviews the reflective process that brought about its resolution. Even as we begin the psalm, then, we are ready to praise God.
First, the moral problem. There is the scandal at beholding the prosperity of the wicked, in contrast to the suffering of the just.
Second, there is the temptation to envy or even emulate the wicked. After all, evil seems to provide a bigger payoff than good. This was the candid argument explicitly made by the Sophist Thrasymachus, who contended that, because injustice does a better job of “delivering the goods,” only a dunce or weakling would prefer justice!
Third, there is the believer’s awareness that he is actually being tempted; he senses that, in permitting himself even to think such thoughts, he places his soul in moral peril. Thus, the believer takes stock of his thoughts before it is too late.
Fourth, he takes stock of his thoughts by entering into the deeper presence of God: “So I tried to understand this, but it was too difficult for me, until I entered the sanctuary of God.” (One may want to interpret this “sanctuary of God” as the loving intellect; Cicero thus speaks of the “temple of the mind.”)
Fifth, the believer reflects on the judgments of God, who knows how to deal with the unjust, and will, at the last, do so. Finally, the believer commits his own destiny to God, who will never abandon him, ever be with him, and, at the end, receive him into glory.
Saturday, February 6
Matthew 10:27-31: This section of Matthew continues to portray the resistance with which the proclamation of the Gospel will be met.
In His exhortation to confidence in the face of such adversity, the Lord takes up an image from the Sermon on the Mount, God’s care of the birds (verses 29-31). Will He not be even more solicitous on our behalf, if He displays such regard toward the tiny sparrows? (Cf. 6:26) As we face the animosity of the world, He warns us, there is the real danger that we will end by denying Him. Indeed, This danger of denying Jesus will introduce tomorrow’s reading from Matthew.
Psalm 27: Although we have no reason to believe that it ever existed as such, it is not difficult to picture Psalm 27 (Greek and Latin 26) as two discrete psalms, so easily can each of the two parts stand on its own. In the first part God is spoken about (“The Lord is my illumination and my savior”); in the second He is spoken to (“Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call”). The first has to do with blessings already received, the second with blessings yet sought.
The voice in this psalm is the voice of the Church, who cries out with respect to Jesus Christ: “The Lord is my illumination and my savior; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the safeguard of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
(There is in the original Hebrew text a delicate pun involving ’ori [“my illumination”] and ’ira [“shall I fear”].)
“The Lord is my illumination,” we pray, using a word that has long borne special reference to our baptism in Christ (cf. Heb. 6:4; 10:32). This is the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). It is in this context of illumination that the Lord is also called “savior” (soter), inasmuch as “there is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism” (1 Peter 3:21).
This assurance—“whom shall I fear?… of whom shall I be afraid?”—is that which asks: “If God is for us, who can be against us?… Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:31,33,35). Like Romans 8, our psalm then takes several verses to revel in the powerlessness of our spiritual enemies.
Psalm 15 had asked: “Lord, who will abide in Your tabernacle, or who shall rest on Your holy mountain?” and Psalm 24 had inquired: “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place?” It is the same here in Psalm 27: “A single thing have I sought of the Lord, and this will I pursue—that I may abide in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may gaze upon the gladness of the Lord, and tarry in His ho
In this verse our psalm touches on the deeper longing of all prayer, the desire to live in intimacy with God, to find joy in His worship, to abide in the consolation and light of His sanctuary: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles” (Matt. 17:4). These are metaphors for that intimate concord with God that is the quest of all our prayer.
We pray for this union with God, but we also actively follow after it, says our psalm. Closeness to the Lord is inseparable from the doing of His will, love itself involving chiefly a union of wills. Thus, union with God comes of both pure grace (“A single thing have I sought of the Lord”) and strenuous effort (“and this will I pursue”—ekzeteso). Such things as fasting, self-denial, patience, kindness, obedience to the Lord’s commandments, and the disciplined exercise of the virtues are all components of this pursuit.
In this psalm the Lord’s sanctuary is chiefly pictured as a place of refuge: “For He screened me in His tabernacle in my day of adversities; in the hidden recess of His tent did He shelter me and lift me high upon a rock.”
Then, evidently in a sequence not decided by logic, we ask in the psalm’s second part those blessings that we celebrated in the first. We ask, that is, for the grace of illumination: “To You my heart has spoken; my face has sought You out. Your face, O Lord, will I seek. Turn not away Your face from me; be not averted in anger from Your servant.”
This is the final grace of prayer, of course, to gaze upon the face of God. On the mountain Moses asked to see the face of God (cf. Ex. 33:17–23), but it was more than a thousand years later when, on yet another mountain, his petition was finally granted (cf. Matt. 17:3). For our Lord Jesus Christ is the face of God, “the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3). To seek the face of God, then, it is imperative to seek it where it is definitively and forever revealed.
To Him we pray, therefore, “Be my helper, and reject me not. Do not forsake me, O God my savior.” Once again, as at the psalm’s beginning, this same expression “my savior,” the knowledge of whom is everlasting life. For Him we wait in longing hope: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.”
Sunday, February 7
Matthew 10:32-42: Confessing and denying, the two verbs spoken of in verses 32-33, are both illustrated in the case of Simon Peter, who both confessed Jesus (16:16) and then denied Him (16:22f; 26:31-35,69-75).
The New Testament provides a number of stories in which entire households accepted the Gospel, which then became the basis of a whole new way of family life. Verses 34-39 here in Matthew, however, affirm that such is not always the case. The Gospel proclamation can divide as well as unite, and family unity has sometimes been destroyed by the Gospel’s acceptance by some family members and its rejection by others. This is a matter of historical experience.
Consequently there is the principle announced in verse 37 about the priorities of love. This “he who” sentence becomes the first of a series of ten such sentences that close out the chapter on the more positive note of those who actually accept the Gospel. In this series of short sayings we particularly observe the emphasis on the first person pronoun, “Me” or “My,” with reference to Jesus. It appears seven times.
The “little ones” in verses 40-42 are to be identified, not only as little children, but also as other Christians, those “babies” to whom the Father reveals His Son (11:25), and who welcome Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (21:16). It will be the thesis of the last part of Chapter 25 that the charity shown to these “least of My brethren” is actually shown to Christ. Here in Chapter 10 the context of this reference suggests that the “little ones” (mikroi) are especially to be identified as those who proclaim the Gospel.
Psalm 93: (Greek and Latin 92) is a brief but rich composition, resonating large biblical themes in its every line: “The Lord is King; He is clothed with splendor. In might has the Lord adorned and girded Himself. The world He made firm, that it be not shaken. Your throne is prepared from everlasting; You are from all eternity. The rivers rise in flood, O Lord, the rivers lift their voices, with the voices of many waters. Marvelous these swellings of the sea; marvelous the Lord on high. Your testimonies have proved exceedingly faithful. Holiness befits Your house, O Lord, unto length of days.”
Identified in this psalm as divine and eternally preexisting, Jesus also shares in the work of Creation, for “all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3). “By Him,” furthermore, “all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth . . . All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16, 17). It is the very eternity of His throne that establishes the fixed character of creation. Thus we pray of Jesus in this psalm: “The world He made firm, that it be not shaken. Your throne is prepared from everlasting.”
Monday, February 8
Matthew 11:1-19: This first verse brings Jesus’ second discourse to a close (Compare 7:28). Presumably the apostles now go out to do the ministry for which Jesus was preparing them in Chapter 10 (cf. 10:1).
While they are gone, Matthew follows the lead of Mark by introducing a “John the Baptist interlude,” a literary construction (cf. Mark 6:7-30) to indicate the passage of time while the apostles are gone. This is the story of the apparent despondency of John in prison.
There are two features particularly to observe in this story: First, Matthew clearly relies on his readers’ familiarity with the entire career of John the Baptist. Although he refers here to John’s imprisonment, the circumstances of that imprisonment are not narrated until Chapter 14.
Second, the signs of the Messiah, listed here by Jesus in 11:5f, are not at all similar to those earlier enunciated by John the Baptist himself in 3:10-12. This dissimilarity may have been the cause of John’s evident misgivings, as he languished in his prison cell.
The fickle resistance that John experienced to his own preaching (verse 17) is a sign of the people’s lack of interest in true conversion. This becomes the theme of the following verses. In Chapter 8-9 Jesus was meeting the resistance of elite enemies, the spiritual leaders of the nation. In Chapters 11-12, however, we shall see resistance to the Gospel on the part of large numbers.
The complaint Jesus makes in the closing verses of this section bear comparison with the complaint made today against Israel in Jeremiah 4:19-31.
Tuesday, February 9
The Book of Ecclesiastes: The traditional ascetical literature of the Church is fond of dividing the Christian life into three “stages,” which are described as the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way. Since at every stage of life the Christian needs purgation, illumination, and union with God, there is something slightly artificial about this division into three stages. Nonetheless, those three adjectives do indicate discernible differences in the life of a Christian who grows in divine grace.
At the beginning of the life of divine grace, the newly converted Christian must strive to break his ties with worldly ways, gain self-control with respect to his passions, stop indulging his secular appetites and curiosities, discontinue those associations likely to lead him back into sin, and endeavor to take up the Cross daily in order to follow Jesus in the activities of his life. These efforts deserve the name “purgative.”
As he learns gradually to do this, the Christian becomes stronger in the Holy Spirit. H
e begins to discover the mysteries of the Sacred Scriptures. He starts to experience the blessings of prayer. He is given insights into the mysteries of the Kingdom. These experiences deserve the name “illuminative.”
After many years of such effort, and relying entirely on the grace of God, the Christian at long last comes to know in his heart how good the Lord is. He intuitively senses the presence of the Holy Spirit in ways that greatly transcend any of his earlier experiences. He becomes united to the Lord ever more intensely and with ever greater joy. These experiences deserve the name “unitive.”
The first stage is very painful, because it involves a complete shift of perspective, as the mind turns from the values of the world. There is often a great deal of sheer humiliation at this stage of the life in Christ. The soul tastes the bitterness of its accumulated bad habits. The Christian learns by deep experience that “all is vanity.”
The second stage is perhaps less painful, but it is still full of struggle, effort, and the strenuous application of discipline. This is the stage in which the Christian acquires certain important “habits,” acquired disciplines, without which there will be no growth in the Spirit.
Finally (even in the sense that the Christian will have grown old by this time!), the soul commences to taste more intimately the joy of the Lord. The believer arrives at that perfect love that casts out fear and begins to do, as though by custom and habit, all those things that are pleasing to God, running with joy the race set before him.
These three stages of the life in Christ, according to the ascetical tradition of the Christian Church, correspond to three of the Bible’s Wisdom books: Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Song of Solomon.
In the first book, Ecclesiastes, we perceive the soul tasting the futility of all things apart from God. This bitter taste is essential to the life of the soul, because it drives the mind to trust only in God and resolutely to eschew the values and standards of the world. The world, in short, is hopeless; it is all vanity. This is the message of Ecclesiastes.
In the second book, Proverbs, the soul learns the disadvantages of laziness and apathy, the worth of discipline and hard work, the value of spiritual effort and self-control. This is the message of Proverbs.
In the third book, the Canticle of Solomon, the soul learns the joys of intimacy with God, the gladness of the Kingdom, the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This is the mystical and deeper message of the Song of Solomon, interpreted in the light of the New Testament teaching that the union of husband and wife is an image of the union of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5).
Today we begin Ecclesiastes and learn a thing or two about “vanity.”
Ecclesiastes is not only the most somber of the biblical authors; he is one of the darkest writers in the entire history of philosophy. For him, all of existence is vexation of heart and spirit (1:14; 2:11, 17, 22, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9). Empirical evidence, he believes, does not support the thesis of a moral universe (3:16; 4:1; 5:8; 7:15; 8:12, 14).
Happiness is supremely elusive (5:10–12; 6:1–9), and nothing is ever as it appears (9:11; 10:6). The very sequences of times and seasons, which elsewhere in the Bible represent God’s covenanted care for man (Genesis 8:22; Psalm 103:19–24), provoke in the mind of Ecclesiastes only the deepest sense of ennui (Ecclesiastes 1:3–8; 3:2–8). Even if wisdom can be attained—which prospect he deems unlikely (7:23–24)— wisdom and grief are inseparable (1:18).
For all that, Qoheleth is no Buddhist. “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,” for Ecclesiastes, represents only a vexing impression with which his believing mind struggles. In spite of this impression, he remains a man of faith, and ultimately his philosophical choice is inseparable from that faith.
Believing in a supreme God—and very unlike the Buddha in this respect—Ecclesiastes never embraces the thesis of radical chaos. The root problem in the world is not the world. It is the human heart’s rebellion against God: “Truly, this only I have found: / That God made man upright, / But they have sought out many schemes” (7:29). In spite of all appearances, then, Qoheleth never loses his conviction that God is the final judge of all human decisions (3:17; 5:6). God’s sovereignty over man’s destiny must never be forgotten (11:9—12:1). However dark the path that man treads, he must in faith continue to “fear God and keep His commandments, / For this is man’s all. / For God will bring every work into judgment, / Including every secret thing, / Whether good or evil” (12:13–14).
Wednesday, February 10
Matthew 11:25-30: In contrast to those mentioned in verses 20-24—those who resist the Lord and reject the Gospel— we now read of the “babies” to whom the Father reveals His Son, and the Son His Father.
Because of its similarity to the Gospel and Epistles of St. John in the very terms of its expression, this text from Matthew is often referred to as the “Johannine Section”—locus johanneus. This custom is perhaps unfortunate, for it conveys the impression that these verses in Matthew would fit the Fourth Gospel better than they fit Matthew.
In fact, however, these verses may be taken as the very key to the proper understanding of Matthew as a whole. They are the explanation of the Father’s voice in 3:17 and 17:5. God has hidden such revelation from the “wise and prudent,” such as the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.
Matthew’s use of these expressions—babies and little ones—to describe Christians, accentuates his teaching on the humility necessary to receive the divine revelation of the Father.; hence the invitation to learn of Jesus, for He is meek and humble of heart, modeling the meekness of those who will inherit the earth (5:5). This meekness of the Lord will later be noted when He rides into Jerusalem seated upon an ass (21:5).
Psalm 81: In the normal circumstances of our daily lives, the abrupt, loud blowing of a horn can serve as a notable stimulant to advertence, a feature that explains why we equip our automobiles, boats, and trains with such a device. This rousing quality of the horn is also the reason we sometimes introduce “events” with what is called a fanfare. Whatever the musical value of the thing, the shrill blast of a horn is likely to attract some measure of attention.
If, however, a number of other extraordinary, distracting phenomena are taking place at the same time, it is possible to miss even the loud sounding of a horn. Thus, when we read of all the marvels that accompanied Moses’ reception of the Law on Mount Sinai, it is altogether possible for us not to notice the sustained and sonorous wail of a ram’s horn. Nonetheless, it was not lost on the Israelites who were present (Ex. 19:16, 19) nor on the early Christian reader who commented on the “sound of a trumpet” that accompanied that event (Heb. 12:19).
Likewise, Psalm 81 (Greek and Latin 80), prescribing the blowing of this ram’s trumpet in the context of liturgical worship, links this context to the singular events of the Exodus: “Rejoice in God our helper, raise an ovation to the God of Jacob. Raise the song and roll the drum; strum the dulcet lyre and play the lute. Intone the trumpet of the New Moon, the famed day of your feast. For a command is ordained unto Israel, a decree of the God of Jacob. He made it a statute to Joseph, when he went out of the land of Egypt and heard a tongue he did not know.”
Literary historians still debate which specific liturgical feast day formed the original context of Psalm 80, since trumpets seem to have been played on many of ancient Israel’s feast days (cf. Numbers 10:10). But this historical question is of no solid significance to the proper praying of this psalm. It suffices to know that our theme is the Exodus fro
m Egyptian servitude.
Thursday, February 11
Matthew 12:1-8: Matthew now picks up again the Markan sequence that he had broken off back in 9:17.
He does this with two stories that he has taken from the series of five conflict stories in the second and third chapters of Mark: the stories of the standing grain and of the man with the withered hand. These two narratives, both of which concern the observance of the Sabbath, appropriately follow the previous sayings about “rest” and the “yoke.”
Matthew’s version of the first of these stories is longer than Mark’s, augmented by the reference to the priests who serve in the Temple on the Sabbath. The Lord’s reasoning here is as follows: If the servants of the Temple may work on the Sabbath, how much more the servants of the One who is greater than the Temple. The argument here is similar to that in 5:17-48; namely, Jesus’ superiority to the Mosaic Law.
Psalm 83: Throughout the Book of Psalms is the constant mention of enemies. Indeed, it may occasionally cross one’s mind that about half of the psalms are prayed against somebody or other, an impression that may be pretty close to accurate. There is a lot of strife in the Psalter.
Nonetheless, though the psalms make almost ubiquitous references to enemies, these are seldom identified very specifically. Psalm 83 (Greek and Latin 82) is an exception to the rule. Here, at least, the psalm points its finger and actually names the foes.
And just who are these enemies? Well, take your pick: “The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, and foreigners with the citizens of Tyre. For Assyria too has joined with them; they have come to the aid of the sons of Lot.”
Now taken all together, this list would describe a pretty impressive coalition of adversaries. Such a confederacy, in fact, never really came together against Israel. Moreover, at no point in Israel’s history did all of these forces even exist simultaneously. Our psalm is describing, rather, an ongoing general situation, not a specific historical event. Whoever the enemy happens to be at the moment, the servants of God live under constant threat of incursion. “Deliver us from the evil one” is ever a fitting petition.
In most of these names we recognize Israel’s real military enemies. Such are Moab, Ammon, and Amalek (cf. Judg. 3:12–30). The first two of these are likewise identical with “the sons of Lot.” Gebal was a city of the Philistines (cf. 1 Kin. 5:18), against whom Israel fought in many a battle. The Edomites are remembered in Holy Scripture for their participation in the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (cf. Obadiah, passim), and we will meet them again in Psalm 137. Hagar being the mother of Ishmael, the Hagrites and the Ishmaelites are apparently the same folk (cf. 1 Chr. 5:10, 18–22). Assyria, finally, was one of the cruelest and most loathed of Israel’s ancient foes (cf. Nahum, passim).
A special feature of this list, nonetheless, indicates that the enmity involved is more than simply military. That element is the mention of the Phoenician capital of Tyre. Although Israel’s relationship with the Phoenicians may sometimes have been strained (cf. 1 Kin. 9:11–14), we have no evidence of any military hostility between them.
Nevertheless, from another and more spiritual perspective, it may be the case that Phoenicia, with its capitals at Tyre and Sidon, was the worst enemy that Israel ever had, because it was through the various economic and political alliances with the Phoenicians that Israel learned ever anew the ways of infidelity to God. Solomon’s early pacts with this nation paved the avenue by which the likes of Jezebel and Athaliah traveled south to teach Israel to sin, and opposition to Phoenician influence was a sustained feature of the prophetic message, from Elijah’s encounter with the servants of Baal (cf. 1 Kings 18), through Amos’s condemnation of the Phoenician slave trade (cf. Amos 1:9), to Ezekiel’s lengthy tirade against their great economic empire (Ezek. 26—28).
The introduction of Tyre into our psalm’s list of foes, therefore, shows that the threatened enmity is more than physical and military. Whether with hostility on the battlefield, or along the subtler paths of syncretism, materialism, idolatry, and cultural compromise, there is more than one way for the people of God to be destroyed. And the danger of destruction is the very theme and meat of this psalm.
The real threat to God’s people, then, is one of spirit, because “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
So we pray that God will renew the wonders He worked of old. Smite afresh, we implore, the forces of Jabin and Sisera (cf. Judg. 4). Give us Gideon again, we plead, to crush those Midianites. Let Oreb and Zeb, Zebah and Zalmunna fall anew in defeat (cf. Judg. 7; 8). May their blood blemish the streams of Kishon, and their bodies lie once more on the dung heap at Endor. Against these demonic enemies of God and His people, we pray with the warrior’s fervor, anger, and zeal.
Friday, February 12
Matthew 12:9-14: Among the conflict stories in Matthew, the present incident must have been the most exasperating to Jesus’ enemies. Now that He already declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” they are watching Him closely as He enters the synagogue. Jesus has already asserted His supreme authority, not only in regard to the Jewish calendar (fast days and the Sabbath), but even sin itself.
In this story there is no pronounced interest in the Sabbath-question as such (unlike verses 1-8). Everything has to do, rather, with Jesus’ authority. His enemies have come to accuse Him, but in the end it is Jesus who does the accusing. He heals the man with the withered hand, but without any outward word or gesture. That is to say, He cannot be accused of violating the Sabbath! The crippled man simply extends his hand and is instantly healed.
Although Jesus gives them no evidence by which they can accuse Him, the critics are not deterred. They promptly conspire to “destroy” Him. This story, thus, prepares for the account of the Lord’s Passion.
Psalm 88: One of the psalms appointed for today—Friday, the day of the Cross—goes directly to the Lord’s Passion. Psalm 88 (Greek and Latin 87) is possibly the most difficult of the psalms. In any case, it is arguably the darkest. It even stands among the most somber compositions in all of Holy Writ, comparable to the overcast pages of Job and Ecclesiastes.
It not being readily apparent, perhaps, how to reconcile such tenebrous tones with evangelical hope, some may even judge the sentiments of this psalm too dismal for it to serve as Christian prayer at all. Psalm 88 is not only darksome in its every line; almost alone among the psalms, it even ends on a dark note. Its final line says: “My friend and confrere have You kept afar from me; and my neighbors, because of my distress.” Now, how can that sort of sentiment be the “last word” in a Christian prayer?
But then, on closer inspection, we may observe certain subtler features softening this impression of our psalm. For all its gloom and shadow, for example, is it without significance that Psalm 87 begins by thus addressing the Almighty: “O Lord, the God of my salvation”? The intimacy and quiet hope of this address put one in mind of Psalm 22, in which the crucified Jesus, asking why God has forsaken Him, nonetheless continues to call Him “my God, my God.”
Three further comments seem appropriate regarding this umbrageous aspect of Psalm 88. First, one must bear in mind that, like all of the Bible, it comes to us from the Holy Spirit. If death is portrayed in this psalm as a very bad thing, then the
Holy Spirit wants us to regard death as a very bad thing. One occasionally meets pagans and unbelievers who avow that they are not afraid to die. Well, this psalm suggests that maybe they should be. In line after line of Psalm 88, a writer under the guidance and impulse of the Holy Spirit says, in the sharpest terms, that death is a most terrifying prospect.
Second, bearing in mind that our fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within us, we should be mightily consoled to think that the Holy Spirit, in this psalm, has made such generous provision for this fleshly side of ourselves. The Holy Spirit, that is to say, gives our fleshly fear its due. If we yet feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit is careful for this fear to find expression in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God, that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear.
Third, the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. If, in addition, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must surely imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? Likewise was His perception of death vastly more ample and accurate than our own. And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of the rest of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could.