Friday, October 22
Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long "narrative prayer" similar to several psalms that recount Israel’s formative history (e.g., Psalms 78 , 105 , 106 ). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses, which immediately preceded Israel’s entrance into Canaan. From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the themes from the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated.
The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nation’s re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that — a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from.
From Israel’s earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together by history. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers! They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer, as we see in so many of the Psalms devoted to that theme.
James 1:1-11: The first verse of this epistle indicates already that James was an authority recognized outside of the Holy Land. The churches addressed here—“the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”—were, apparently, of a Jewish makeup, and they looked to this first Bishop of Jerusalem, the Lord’s own kinsman, as their spiritual father. In this sense, James is not only our first example of a bishop; he is also our earliest model for a patriarch.
In this connection let us recall that the Apostle Paul, when he wrote of those whom he consulted at Jerusalem, named James first—before Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). It is worth observing, likewise, that this same sequence—James, Peter, John—is identical to the order in which the epistles of these same three men appear in the New Testament.
James, in a series of apparently unsystematic exhortations, begins with patience, prompting the careful reader to recall that St. Paul, too, when he commenced his description of Christian love, began with the succinct thesis, “Love is patient”–Charitas patiens est in the Vulgate. James’ word for “patience,” hypomone–verses 3,4) will later appear when James speaks of the example of Job (5:11). He begins and ends this work, then, on the need of patience in the time of trial (verses 2,12,13,14).
The English reader, as he reads “when you fall into various trials,” may not suspect the skillful play of sounds in James’ original Greek: perasmois peripesete poikilois. In fact, James displays such verbal flourishing right from the start, going from “greetings” (verse 1) to “all joy” (verse 2)–chairein pasa charan.
The theme of rejoicing in times of trial is a common one in the New Testament (Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:41; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This active attitude toward the experience of trial, as distinct from a merely passive endurance, brings about a kind of perfection, an ergon teleion (verse 4), perfection being a quality of great interest to James (verse 17,25; 3:2).
Those who attain unto perfection “lack nothing” (en medeni leipomenoi–verse 4). What a man may “lack” (leipetai–verse 5) first of all, says James, is wisdom, a gift that he may obtain through prayer to the generous God. This sudden mention of prayer and wisdom may not seem at first to fit the context of patience, which James has already introduced. The author is inspired here, however, by the Wisdom Scriptures, where wisdom is attained by prayer (1 Kings 3:5-9; Wisdom 9:10-18) and the patient endurance of trials (Wisdom 9:6; Sirach 4:17).
James’ mention of prayer leads to a consideration of faith and constancy (verse 6), because the prayer of faith is contrasted with wavering and hesitation. The expression used for wavering and hesitation here is diakrinomai (verses 6,7), the middle voice of a verb meaning to make judgments. The use of this word suggests that the contrast of prayerful faith is some kind of inner debate, perhaps a bewilderment about the efficacy of prayer itself. The same contrast between inconstancy and the prayer of faith, using the identical words, is also found in the sayings of Jesus (Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23).
Such hesitancy and inner debate produces a “man of two souls”–aner dipsyhos (verse 8). This metaphor, which appears to be James’ own invention (the fragment in Philo seems not to be authentic), became common in early Christian literature. James’ adjective is found numerous times in Clement of Rome, Pseudo-Clement, Hermas, Origen, and later Christian writers, along with the corresponding noun dipsychia (“double-soul-ness”) and verb dipsychein (“to be double-soul-ed”). Such a person, animated sometimes by fervor toward God and at other times by friendship with the world, did not love God with his “whole” heart. He was certainly “unstable in all his ways.”
James next introduces the contrast of wealth and poverty (verses 9-11), which will become a notable theme in the entire epistle (1:27; 2:1-7,15-17; 4:10,13-16; 5:1-6). As we shall reflect in the next chapter, this sense of poverty and riches is not theoretical in James; it pertains, rather, to the concrete life of the Church, the one place on earth where the poor can expect to be treated with honor. Indeed, as James suggests here, it is also in the Church that the rich man will receive salutary instruction on the transitory nature of wealth, and in this instruction he too will be honored (verse 10).
Saturday, October 23
Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals—to be, in fact, a people very different from every other. These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), observance of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book. Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be–namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. God’s distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That adjective had to be a reality, and not just a word.
This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God.
This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, Israel’s spiritual walls had been badly penetrated—by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances. These last were sometimes sealed by marriages joining the people’s leadership to the very worst qualities represented in the other nations.
The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of Israel’s recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive, building walls, establishing clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.
Sunday, October 24
Nehemiah 11: We have already seen the theological significance of the sort of census data that we have in this chapter. The present list comprises the names of those within the walls that have been constructed. They are the separated people, the "insiders," symbolic of the inner identity of the holy nation.
All through these two books we have watched the outsiders trying to get inside–or at least to have access to the inside–exercising a sustained harassment of those inside. We saw the response of Zerubbabel, for instance, to the suggestion, in Ezra 4:1-3, that there be no distinction between insider and outsider, because Israel’s pre-captivity history had already taught him the dangers of not insisting on that distinction. The outsiders, thus rebuffed, have spent the rest of these two books trying to prevent the separating walls from being constructed. As the enemies of Jerusalem’s walls, they were attempting to keep Israel from being Israel. They perceived that the walls symbolized exclusiveness, and they resented being outsiders.
This is a curious phenomenon. Why, after all, should they care? If Israel wanted to be exclusive, why should that preference bother anybody else? In fact, nonetheless, Israel’s exclusiveness was deeply resented. Israel’s claim to be a special and holy people, a claim that laid special moral responsibilities on Israel, was simply more than other people could endure. Consequently, Israel’s adversaries have spent much of these two books in a genuine and aggressive snit.
The one place where Israel was truly threatened, however, was not in its building programs, but in the construction of its families, the formation of its homes. Thus, intermarriage with outsiders, which so incensed both Ezra and Nehemiah, was the single path by which Israel could be most effectively led astray.
These lists of Jewish families, therefore, are very pertinent to the general preoccupation and theme of these two books. These genealogies are spiritual walls, designed to protect the identity of God’s chosen people.
The provision permitting one-tenth of its citizens (chosen by lot) to live in the Holy City established a kind of tithe, as it were, of the entire nation. Those who otherwise chose to live there represented a corresponding “free will offering” of the nation.
Monday, October 25
Nehemiah 12: This chapter, which begins with another genealogical list of priests and Levites (verses 1-26), indicates the importance that proper and verifiable "succession" enjoys in the biblical theology of institutional ministry (as distinct from prophetic ministry).
Next comes an account of the solemn dedication of the wall (verses 27-47) and all that that wall represented by way of the symbolisms we have been discussing.
It is reasonable to understand the narrative’s return to first person singular in verse 31 as an indication that we are once again dealing with the memoir of Nehemiah, on which so much of this book is based.
According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, the event narrated in this chapter took place, not in September, but in December, falling very close in the calendar, in fact, to the date of the Maccabees’ own purification of the temple (recorded in 1 Maccabees 4:60). Both events—the dedication of the walls under Nehemiah in the fifth century and the purification of the temple under Judas Maccabaeus in the second century—are called "Hanukkah," meaning inauguration or dedication (verse 27; John 4:22). (Only the latter event, however, was incorporated into the Jewish liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Jews each December even today.)
Nehemiah saw to it that the city was ritually circled by two simultaneous processions conducted on top of the walls, complete with trumpets. The dedication of the walls is portrayed, therefore, as an event of worship. The simultaneous procession of the two groups, marching in opposite directions, constituted what one commentator calls “a stereophonic presentation.”
James 2:1-13: The message of this section is straightforward and unsubtle. James points to a common trait of fallen man: the disposition to cultivate favor with the powerful over the weak, to prefer the approval of the rich to that of the poor. James begins by noting the easiest, most immediate way of distinguishing between the two—their clothing. Because the wealthier man can afford better clothes, he is better able to honor his own body, prompting others to comply with that honor. As modern men sometimes say, “Clothing makes a statement.”
For James, however, who has just mentioned that true religion consists in care for the poor and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (1:27), such deference towards the wealthy is only another form of worldliness. The New King James Version calls this vice “partiality.” The King James’ rendering “respect of persons” comes closer to the sense of the Greek prosopolempsia, literally translated in the Vulgate as personarum acceptatio, “acceptance of persons.” This word means that distinctions are made, according to which some people are treated with greater honor and respect than others.
The thing chiefly to be noted about this prosopolempsia is that God doesn’t have any (Romans 2:11), and neither should the Church. A preference for the wealthy, even with the excuse that the wealthy are in a better position to aid the work of the Church, would seem to be the very antithesis of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unsullied by the world. As such it has no legitimate place in the social life of the Church (verses 2-3).
Tuesday, October 26
Nehemiah 13: The dedication of the wall was the occasion for some more reading from the Torah, including the prescription found in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, which excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Israel (verse 1). As long as Nehemiah was on the local scene, such exclusions were taken seriously (verses 2-3). When he left to make a brief visit back to Babylon (verse 6), however, events turned for the worse. On his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah learned all sorts of unpleasant things.
He learned, for instance, that a member of the priestly family had become the son-in-law of his old foe, Sanballat (verse 28). In former days, when Sanballat tried to impede the construction of the wall, Nehemiah had held him off. Now, nonetheless, Sanballat was suddenly inside the walls! What he had been unable to do by force of arms, he managed to accomplish by the simple means of marrying his daughter to a priest! This serious breach in Jerusalem’s spiritual wall once again put at peril Israel’s very existence as a holy nation, a people set apart.
In addition, Nehemiah discovered that the high priest himself had provided lodging within the temple for one of those who had opposed Nehemiah’s very mission (verses 4-5). Other things had gotten out of hand, as well, such as the failure to observe the Sabbath, whether by Jews themselves or by pagans who came to sell their wares in the city (verses 15-22).
Nehemiah set himself to put everything straight again (verses 7-13). The major problem, however, continued to be the disposition of the people to intermarry with non-Jews (verses 23-27), in contravention to the Torah (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Nehemiah found it a very tough job to maintain those walls!
Recalling those great efforts, Nehemiah prayed that God would not forget them, “Remember me, O Lord” became his refrain (verses 14,22,29,30).
Luke 18:9-14: The tone and sometimes even the structure of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican bear striking affinities to other passages in Luke. For example, the parable’s closing statement, about the humbling of the self-exalting and the exalting of the humble, is identical with 14:11, the final verse of the Lord’s exhortation about seeking the lower place at table. In fact it is a theme that Luke establishes early, with the song of Mary in 1:52. Again, the differing features and fates of the two men in the temple remind the reader of the opposition between the Rich Man and Lazarus in 16:9–31; each story has to do with the divergence of the divine judgment from the human.
Even clearer, perhaps, is our parable’s resemblance to the story of the Prodigal Son in 15:11–32. Both narratives elaborate differences between a self-righteous keeper of the Law and a miserable offender pleading for, and relying entirely upon, forgiveness and grace. Similarly, the humble contrition of the Publican resembles that of the repentant woman in 7:36–50, while his gentle confidence in the divine mercy is like that of the chronically bleeding woman in 8:43f.
Most of all, however, the petition of the Publican in the temple closely resembles the prayer of the Thief on the Cross in 23:42; since neither man could bring to God anything but a plea for divine mercy, their cases are precisely parallel.
This parable also is one of several specifically Lukan passages dealing with prayer. Luke is the only evangelist, for example, to picture Jesus at prayer during his baptism (3:21), at the transfiguration (9:28f.), in preparation for the calling of the Twelve (6:12), and just prior to the giving of the Lord’s Prayer (11:1). Luke’s Gospel begins (1:10) and ends (24:53) with prayer.
Wednesday, October 27
Isaiah 1: The first five chapters of this book form a sort of preface, introducing the call of the prophet in chapter 6. We note the absence of historical indicators (except for 1:1, of course) in these chapters, in striking contrast with chapters 6 and 7. The purpose of this introductory material, which was surely composed after Isaiah was called, is to provide a critical analysis of the Kingdom of Judah, in order to set that calling in the proper historical context.
The time of Isaiah, the second half of the eighth century before Christ, beginning in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), was a period of rebellion against God and infidelity to His covenant. This rebellious infidelity is illustrated in the first chapter by the collapse of national life (verses 6-9), religious apostasy (verses 10-15), and social disintegration (verses 21-23).
The book’s first verse, as is usual in the prophetic books, simply provides the time frame: the second half of the eighty-century, beginning in the last year of King Uzziah, 742 B.C.
This is a book about “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), a theme that joins all parts of the work. Indeed, the names “Jerusalem” and “Zion” occur 97 times in the Book of Isaiah, the occurrences spread pretty evenly in all parts of the work.
The national life of Judah has collapsed (verses 6-9). God had made this people His children through the Exodus deliverance and covenant, but who can tell it under the current conditions?
For the first time Isaiah uses the expression “Holy One of Israel” (Qadosh Israel), which expression is found 25 times in Isaiah and only 7 times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Found in all parts of this book, it may have been coined by Isaiah himself. Indeed, he uses the expression Qadosh, “Holy One,” to refer to God 33 times, whereas it appears only 25 times in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. The transcendent holiness of God was revealed to the prophet by the voices of the Seraphim in Isaiah’s call in the Temple (6:1-3), where the word is tripled, or, if the term be permitted, “cubed”–holy times holy times holy. This is the holiness that fills heaven and earth. In a sense, all of the Book of Isaiah is an extension of that hymn of the Seraphim.
Isaiah’s criticism of religious ritual (verses 10-15) was not a condemnation of ritual worship itself. If it were, how do we explain his being called in the Temple, to which the Lord here refers as “My courts” (verse 12)? This criticism was directed, rather, to the separation of ritual from ethics (verses 16-20), two essential components of the Mosaic Law.
Jerusalem, the holy city of God’s presence, is likened to the condemned cities destroyed of old for their corruption (verses 9-10; 3:9; 13:19). In the midst of this condemnation, nonetheless, there comes the promise of restoration, if Israel should attend and repent (verses 25-27).
Thursday, October 28
Isaiah 2: Once again Isaiah’s vision, as at the first (1:1), concerns “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1)
This chapter contains three oracles, none of which can be assigned with certainty to a particular date; they do seem to come, however, from early in his ministry, perhaps within the first years after his calling.
The first of these oracles (verses 1-5) is concerned with the ideal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem to come—“it shall come to pass in the last days” (verse 2). It speaks of the future glorification of God’s holy city, that more blessed Jerusalem of promise, of which the ancient capital of David was a prefiguration and type (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10). It will be, says the prophet, a city of peace (verse 4), something that the Jerusalem on earth has never been. Isaiah will describe this Jerusalem at greater length in chapter 4.
Although the literary and historical relationship between the two texts is uncertain, verses 2-4 of this chapter are substantially identical to Micah 4:1-4.
This oracle is internally balanced by “into Zion” (verses 2-3) and “out of Zion” (verses 3-4). The image of flowing upwards indicates that this is not a natural process, so to speak; it does not follow the natural law of gravity. It suggests, rather, the divine magnetism by which God’s reverses the order of nature.
The second oracle (verses 6-9) moves from the ideal, future Jerusalem to the actual, unfaithful city known to Isaiah. This oracle is critical of the idolatrous pursuit of wealth in the Jerusalem of Isaiah’s time. We remember that his prophetic calling came in the last year of King Uzziah (6:1), whose reign (783-742) had restored a great deal of Judah’s prosperity. This prosperity, Isaiah saw, led to the worship of human achievement as a particularly virulent form of idolatry. It was the sin of pride, and Isaiah threatened its punishment.
This second oracle offers a series of contrasts with the first. Thus, instead of drawing the nations to the ways of God (verse 3), we find this Jerusalem conforming to the ways of the nations (verse 6). Instead of spiritual riches for the world (verse 3), there is worldly wealth for Zion (verse 7). In place of world peace (verse 4), we see Jerusalem full of the instruments of war (verse 7). Whereas the first oracle spoke of the knowledge of the true God (verse 3), the second speaks of the worship of false gods (verse 8). This punishment of these evils is the theme of the third oracle (verses 10-22). Verse 11 marks Isaiah’s first use (of very many during the first thirty-nine chapters) of the expression "on that day" to designate the day of judgment (verse 17), the catastrophic day when God will overthrow all pride, all human achievement, all idolatry. Although Isaiah was speaking within the particular historical context of the mid-eighth century before Christ, we observe that his language was universal—all. Among the biblical prophets, Isaiah was the first to proclaim a universal divine judgment on human history as such. This made him a prophet for the whole world, a vocation that he still fulfills through the Christian Gospel.
Friday, October 29
Isaiah 3: Once again this chapter begins with “Jerusalem and Judah” (verses 1,8). The “staff and stay” (KJV), found twice in this verse, are the masculine and feminine forms of the same noun (mash‘en and mash‘enah). This combination formed an idiom indicating totality, not unlike our English “kit and boodle.” Every form of support, says Isaiah, is coming apart. Can famine (also mentioned in verse 7) be far off?
The prosperity attendant on the reign of King Uzziah was accompanied by grave social inequities and other evils. The present chapter of Isaiah speaks of two such: the lack of adequate leadership (verses 1-15) and the elaborate cultivation of female finery in clothing and adornment (verses 16-24).
The previous chapter ended with a warning about putting excessive trust in men (2:22). The present chapter continues this theme by listing the failures of Judah’s leadership. This first unit is enclosed by “the Lord, the Lord of hosts” (’Adon IHWH Savaoth–verses 1 & 15).
First, Israel’s leadership is in a state of collapse (verses 2-3), and with it all societal support and structure, including the basic technical crafts, such as carpentry. The leadership is immature (verse 4), so all of society disintegrates (verses 5,12). Since leadership is not taken seriously, serious men will not assume it (verses 6-7). Indeed, Isaiah knew that he was already seeing an excellent example of such a bad ruler in the person of King Ahaz (735-716). Meanwhile, in Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, Israel’s own puny monarchy was on its last legs, destined to fall to the Assyrians in 722.
The Lord will be the Judge for His oppressed and badly governed people (verses 12-15; cf. Psalms 50  and 82 , perhaps the liturgical texts on which Isaiah relies).
Second, the mention of women in leadership leads to a sarcastic description of the arrogant clothing styles for women in vogue at the time. Isaiah’s description is bound to remind a modern reader of a contemporary fashion show, in which a line of pretentious young ladies come strutting across a walkway, walking in ridiculous gyrating strides that have no purpose except to draw meretricious and lascivious attention to themselves: "the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet" (verse 16). Isaiah goes on with an obvious relish for sarcasm, listing the various articles of clothing and jewelry, all the way to purses and hand mirrors.
The first verse of chapter 4 goes logically with the present chapter. These vain, arrogant women, despite their vaunted allurements, cannot find husbands, because the casualties of warfare have claimed six of every seven men.