Friday, October 1
1 John 3:10-24: John continues his practical approach to Christian salvation, especially addressing the believer’s duties toward his “brother.” These duties are summarized in the verb “love.”
Our brotherhood in Christ is contrasted with history’s first brotherhood, that of Cain and Abel (verse 12). In that ancient case Cain violated the most elementary duty of brotherhood by murdering Abel, and he murdered him, John gives us to believe, because he hated him. From this, John concludes that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer (verse 15). This is the reason why, from the beginning, Christians have been instructed to love one another (verse 11; cf. 2:7-8).
The negative example of Cain, a man lacking in both faith (Hebrews 11:4) and love (verse 12), was taken over in Christian moral instruction (Jude 11; First Clement 14), and John clearly expects his readers to be familiar with both the biblical text and the theme.
Augustine of Hippo pursued this motif in a particularly Johannine way by comparing the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the classical account of Romulus and Remus. The two murderers, Cain and Romulus, both fratricides, were also founders of cities. These two cities, Rome and Enoch (cf. Genesis 4:17), symbolize what St. John called “the world,” understood as humanity’s attempt to live its own life in defiance of God. John’s world corresponds to what Augustine calls “the city of man,” which he contrasts with the City of God (cf. The City of God 15:5-8).
Cain’s story, because it is a tale of hatred, exemplifies the world’s murderous attitude toward Christians (verses 13-15; John 15:18). In this respect John provides a further elaboration of the incompatibility between God and the world. To be a child of God is to be the beneficiary of an immense love, a love radically incompatible with hatred toward anyone. A person certainly cannot be a child of God and still hate other children of God. Nowhere does the spirit of the world more seriously endanger Christians than by tempting them to hate one another.
God’s love for us was proved by the life that was laid down on the Cross on our behalf, giving us the supreme example of how we ourselves are to love one another (verse 16). Fidelity to that example requires, at the very least, that we share with our needy brothers and sisters the means to preserve their lives (verse 17). This is the practical test to determine whether or not we love one another (verse 18). Most of us are never called on to die for someone else, so in some sense this is not normally a realistic test. Taking care of one another’s needs, however, is something we can actually observe and measure.
John’s exhortation that we should “not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” merits a closer grammatical inspection (verses 18-24). In the combination “word and tongue” we recognize what grammarians call a hendiadys, which means that a single idea is expressed by two words. That is to say, in John’s expression there is no real difference between word and tongue; they are both metaphors for speech. John means simply, “Let not our love be just a lot of talk.”
This much is clear enough, but our parsing should be carried over to John’s second pair of words, “deed and truth.” It is important to see that this second combination is also a hendiadys. In context, both words—deed and truth—mean the same thing; for John there is no real distinction between them. True love for one another is not just a lot of talk. It is composed, rather, of what we do. This is how “we shall know that we are of the truth” (verse 19).
In the verses that follow, John seems to have in mind those Christians of sensitive conscience, whose hearts may be smitten by a strong sense of their sins. No matter how hard they struggle, they find that their hearts condemn them, and they become subject to misgivings regarding their spiritual state (verse 20),
John strengthens such Christians by directing their attention to two elementary facts. First, they are to consult their actual behavior, especially active charity toward others, as a more reliable indicator of their true spiritual state. Second, they are to recall that the all-knowing Father reads their consciences more accurately than they do, and in His benevolent gaze they are to place their trust, putting their hearts at rest (pesomen ten kardian). In the context, John especially has in mind the efficacious prayer whereby “whatever we ask we receive from Him” (cf. also John 14:12-13; 16:23).
Such reflections on our spiritual state are not to be exercises of an isolated conscience. They are to take place under the eyes of God, “before Him” (emprosthen Avtou—verse 19), “in His sight” (enopion Avtou—verse 22). Proper Christian conscience is not simply the heart reflecting on itself; it is exercise, rather, in the conscious awareness of thee Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6:4,6,8,18).
God’s double commandment is both doctrinal and moral: orthodox faith in Christ and the love of one another (verse 23). These two things manifest that we are of the truth and that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us (verse 24).
Saturday, October 2
1 John 4:1-11: Much of the growth of the early Church can be ascribed to the extraordinary religious restlessness and philosophical curiosity of the period. The Athenians were not the only citizens in the Mediterranean Basin who “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” This same inquisitive spirit, however, which brought pagan seekers to find the Gospel, was not always dropped when these seekers joined the Church. The same curiosity and infatuation with new ideas often enough served to undermine Christian dogma itself. John deals with such a problem in the present chapter.
The experience of both the Old and New Testament testifies that claims to being Spirit-led are frequently bogus and sometime downright mendacious. From time past memory there has been no shortage of believers who claimed, “The Lord said such and such to me,” or “I feel the Lord’s leading to do this or that.” However, when such claims are supported by no more than a frame of mind or an emotional impulse, common prudence calls out for a measure of skepticism. Such senses and impulses may originate solely in the imagination of the person who feels them. Without supporting evidence more readily verifiable, they certainly can make no valid claim on the conscience.
Sometimes, in fact, the origin of such impulses is even more suspect and presents a genuine threat to spiritual wellbeing. The feeling that one is being led by the Lord may come straight from the Father of Lies. There is, says St. John, a “spirit of error” (to pnevma tes planes—verse 6) abroad in the world, masquerading as the truth, and even believers are subject to its influence and attack. The “error” in this description refers to the subjective responsibility of the person that is thus afflicted. In its origin this spirit is far worse than erroneous. It is deliberately and consciously deceptive. It is the spirit of the antichrist (verse 3) and the false prophet (verse 2).
For this reason spiritual discernment is essential to spiritual health (verse 1). This discernment pertains equally to all claims of inspiration in the Church (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21; First Corinthians 12:3,10; Didache 11:8).
The principles, standards, and criteria for this discernment include dogma and dogmatic statements. Indeed, in the discernment of spirits, dogma is primary, particularly Christological dogma (verses 2-3). After all, the only real Holy Spirit is that which testifies correctly of Jesus. Hence, there must be a Christological criterion for recognizing the true Holy Spirit, and this criterion is contained in the Church’s Christological confession of faith (homologei—verses 2,3).
Therefore, the refusal to render the Church’s confession of faith indicates that the person still belongs to the “world” (kosmos—verses 1,3,4,5,6), the world that lies outside the prayer of Christ (John 17:9). The “world,” which stands inimical to God, cannot be expected to recognize in Jesus the incarnate Son of God, because the world is blinded by the only things in it—to wit, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life. Thus, those who adhere to the world “speak out of the world” (ek tou kosmou lalousin—verse 5), in the sense of expressing mainly pride and lust. Such folk are “not of God” (ouk . . . ek tou Theou—verse 6).
In place of “not confess” in verse 3, a few manuscripts read “dissolves” (luei), apparently in the sense that this false teaching breaks down, destroys the unity of God and man in Jesus Christ. That is, it dissolves the Incarnation. Although weakly supported by the Greek manuscripts, this reading, evidenced as early as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, is preserved in the Latin (Vulgate) Bible.
The truth of the Gospel, on the other hand, is recognized by those who already belong to God and, in some degree, “know God” (ho ginoskon ton Theon—verse 6). This is consonant with Jesus’ statement to Pontius Pilate: “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice" (John 18:37).
So far John has discussed two ways in which believers know their union with God—namely, their adherence to Jesus in faith and their love for one another. Are these two things separable? And if not, how are they connected? John now proceeds to explain this relationship.
He begins by considering where love, agape, comes from. Its source and origin in God. Although we are under command to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12; 30:6; Matthew 22:37), this is a command humanly impossible to observe, because such love, agape, is not human. It is literally of God: he agape ek tou Theou estin (verse 7). Consequently, if we can love God at all, it is only because “He loved us” (verse 10).
That is to say, the priority of God’s love has to do with love’s origin. The proper sense of verse 10, then, is that God has first loved us, the meaning caught in the traditional Latin version, Ipse prior dilexit nos.
Consequently, the lover (ho agpon) is more than human; he is “born of God.” And because “God is love,” only someone who loves can be said to know God. Love, then, begins with the being of God.
How, then, is God’s love known to us? How has it become manifest? “God has sent His only begotten Son into the world” (verse 9). And to what purpose did God send Him? John speaks of two reasons.
First, “to be the atoning sacrifice [hilasmon] for our sins” (verse 10). The Son that God sent is “His only begotten” (Avtou ton monogene), the only Son that He has begotten, and the object of His love (Compare Genesis 22:2,12). This unique Son is offered in sacrifice for our sins (1:7). This is how the inner being of God is revealed to us (cf. John 3:14-17). It is in this gift of His beloved Son as our atoning sacrifice that we know God’s love for us.
In the Gospels the Father twice identifies Jesus as His only begotten and beloved Son—first at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and then at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). These revelations are extremely important in the theology of the Gospels, because in them God discloses exactly who it is that will be sacrificed on the Cross later on in the narrative. These two revelations, at the baptism and at the Transfiguration, are essentially and directly related to the Cross.
Second, God sent His Son “that we might live through Him” (verse 9). This Son, whom with our outward eyes we behold lifted up for the sins of the world, we also know as a renewing principle in our hearts, whereby we are able to love God and to love one another (verse 11).
Sunday, October 3
Job 42: The patriarchal setting of the Book of Job prompted some rabbis to speculate that Moses himself was its author (Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b). Although nobody today, as far as I know, holds that opinion, it is not without its attraction, especially if one considers certain affinities between the two men.
Most notable among these, perhaps, was the shared meekness of Moses and Job. Both could be called ‘anav, a Hebrew word signifying poverty of spirit. This adjective is often translated as “poor,” but it indicates a spiritual quality, better rendered as “meek.”
Thus, Job appears to include himself when he speaks of the ‘anevei ’ares, “the meek of the land” (Job 24:4). Meekness certainly describes the patience with which the man of Uz accepts his sufferings, particularly the psychological pain inflicted by his three so-called comforters. These self-righteous men, who are the very opposite of meek, bring this quality of Job into sharper prominence.
As for Moses, we are told he was ‘anav me’od mikkol ha’adam, “meek beyond all mankind” (Numbers 12:3). The meekness of Moses, I suppose, was most obvious when he endured the sundry complaints of those cantankerous Israelites, who daily burdened his life in the desert.
In this respect, we should observe that both Moses and Job are portrayed, not as giants on the earth, but as ordinary men, frail human beings. Each of them is introduced simply as a ‘man,” an ’ish. As though foretelling Job’s story as a whole, this noun is the first word used to describe him: ’ish hayah, “a man there was.” Not a champion, not a hero, just a man.
The same noun, ’ish, is used of Moses in the very place where he is called “meek.” The verse begins, weha’ish Mosheh ‘anav, “the man Moses was meek” (Numbers 12:3). This description of “the man Moses” comes between two stories in which his desert compatriots put his patience severely to the test. So hard was the first trial that Moses complained to God, “Why have You afflicted Your servant? Why have I not found favor in Your sight that You should lay on me the burden of all these people?” (Numbers 11:11). This problem is barely settled when Moses next finds himself challenged by his brother and sister, who demand to know, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” This is the setting in which “the man Moses was meek beyond all mankind.”
The Lord’s response to the complaint of Aaron and Miriam bears close inspection and should be compared with the response He gives to the comforters of Job. We will examine the two cases together. I want to do this according to the Greek text, where the parallels between the two accounts—as I hope to demonstrate—are intentionally crafted by the translator of Job.
Prior to our comparison of these two stories, it is necessary to comment briefly about the various Greek nouns used to translate the Hebrew word ‘eved, “servant.” The translators of our Greek Old Testament were familiar with different kinds of servants, and they recognized those differences in the ways they rendered the single underlying Hebrew noun.
For example, the word ‘eved—“servant”—when it refers to Moses (Exodus 4:10 and many other places) or Job (Job 1:8; 2:3 and so forth), is almost never translated as doulos, a noun suggesting a state of bondage. The Greek translators generally did not consider this a word appropriate to speak of Moses and Job. (The sole exception is Malachi 4:4/LXX 3:24.)
Another Greek word for “servant” is pais, a noun more suggestive of a house servant. Although the Book of Exodus does not apply this term to Moses, the Book of Job uses it to speak of Job at the book’s beginning (Job 1:8).
A third way of translating the Hebrew ‘eved in Greek is therapon, a noun suggesting greater intimacy with the master, such as an attendant, a companion in arms. For instance, in classical literature Patroclus was the therapon of Achilles. Because the service of a therapon was free, no Greek would have confused him with a doulos.
In the Greek Old Testament the preferred term for Moses is therapon (e.g., Exodus 4:10; Numbers 12:7; Wisdom 10:16). So much was this the case, that in our earliest Christian literature, this term was reserved exclusively for Moses (Hebrews 3:5; Clement of Rome, 4:12; 43:1; 51:3; Pseudo-Barnabas 14:4).
Although the Book of Job begins by calling him God’s pais, by the end of the book he has become God’s therapon. (I follow the codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which are more consistent on this point.) Why this change? The reason, I believe, is the translator’s recognition of a likeness to Moses in the final scene of Job’s vindication before his three accusers. This scene reminded the translator of the episode in which the Lord vindicated Moses against Aaron and Miriam.
We are ready now to compare these stories; I propose to do so with four observations:
First, in both the stories God begins by appearing on the scene and revealing Himself. In the Moses account we are told, “the Lord came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle and called Aaron and Miriam.” In the corresponding narrative of Job, we read, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”
Second, in each case the Lord, having revealed Himself, vindicates His faithful servant against his accusers. Thus, we are told, the Lord speaks face-to-face with “My servant Moses,” inasmuch ‘he is faithful in all My house.” We note here the significant expression “My servant Moses”—ho therapon Mou Moyses. The same words are repeated when the Lord interrogates Aaron and Miriam, “Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”
Using this identical expression, the Lord is equally displeased with Job’s challenger, Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken right of Me, as My servant Job [ho therapon Mou Iob].” Job, who began as God’s pais, is now identified as God’s therapon. The quality of Job’s service to God has undergone a transformation since the beginning of the book. He has now become, like Moses, the intimate of God.
Third, both Moses and Job intercede with the Lord on behalf of their critics. Thus, Moses pleads for the healing of Miriam. In the case of Job, the Lord instructs Eliphaz, “go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken right of Me, as My servant Job.” Here the word therapon is found three more times, as though to make sure that the reader does not miss Job’s correspondence to Moses.
Fourth, in both stories the designation of God’s therapon comes from the Lord Himself: “My servant.” Only God can identify His close associate, His companion in arms. The highest testimony the Lord gives of His faithful servant Job—after his severe trials—is to liken him to Moses.
Monday, October 4
Ezra 1: Here begins Ezra-Nehemiah, originally a single book with two large sections. The first of these sections (Ezra 1:1—Nehemiah 7:3) is structured around the three major waves of Israelites who returned from Babylon to the Holy Land. The second part of this work (Nehemiah 7:4—13:31) describes the reformation and renewed life of those who returned from Captivity.
The first section is divided into three parts, corresponding to the three major groups of exiles who returned from Babylon—to wit, the first group, who came back during the reign of Cyrus (538-530); the second, who returned with Ezra in 458; and the third, who returned with Nehemiah in 445.
Each of these three accounts marks a particular kairos—a special theological moment—in Israel’s restoration after the Babylonian Captivity. Each also finds a climax in the fulfillment of a desired project: the first (Ezra 1—6) culminates in the completion of the new Temple, the second (Ezra 7—10) in the restoration of the Mosaic observance, and the third (Nehemiah 1:1—7:3) in the reconstruction of the walls of Jerusalem.
We now begin the story of the first wave of returning exiles.
Since the first verse of this chapter is identical with 2 Chronicles 36:22, some scholars of the Sacred Text have suggested that there was originally no break between these two books. That is to say, the argument has been made that at one time the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah were all one work. Interpreters have long observed that all these books are united by a common theological perspective, dominated by concerns of proper worship.
I believe, nonetheless, that this shared preoccupation does not sufficiently explain the profound differences between Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles (cf. P. H. Reardon, Chronicles of History and Worship, pp.9-10).
Cyrus, who had ruled the Persians since 559, began to reign over what had been the Babylonian Empire in October of 539, but the Bible "rounds out" that reign to the beginning of its first full year (verse 1), the "new year’s day" of which was in March of 538. This is the year, then, that the Babylonian Captivity came to an end. Cyrus’s decree, of which this chapter contains a Hebrew paraphrase (verses 2-4), indicates the relatively enlightened policy of the Persians toward those who had been conquered and deported by the Babylonians.
Unlike the Assyrians and Babylonians, the more “liberal” Persians sought to inspire loyalty among subject peoples by respecting their local religions ("which is in Jerusalem," specifies verse 3) and, where possible, safeguarding their local and ethnic traditions. From an inscription on a clay barrel known as "Cyrus’s Cylinder," we know of that emperor’s general policy of repatriating deported peoples and restoring deported gods back to the places of their traditional temples. That documented policy of Cyrus is obviously consonant with the biblical account.
If we examine the wording of Chapter 1 carefully, we observe that the interest of the author is not in the ending of the Captivity per se (because very few Jews actually returned from Babylon at first, after all, having established nice homes and lucrative businesses there during two generations), but in the restoration of proper worship in the temple. (Bear in mind that in 538 the ink was barely dry on those final chapters of Ezekiel, describing the glory of the new temple!)
The author’s real interest in the Book of Ezra is not geopolitical, but theological and liturgical. The "seventy years" prophecy of Jeremiah 29:10 was not fulfilled until the temple was completed in 516, exactly seventy years after its destruction in 586. When that temple was eventually finished, it would house the confiscated sacred vessels that Cyrus now restores to the Jews (verse 7-10). Sheshbazzar (verse 11), incidentally, is the Persian way of referring to Zerubbabel, about whom more will be said in the following chapters.
The decree of Cyrus orders all the neighbors of the returning Jews to assist them “with silver and gold, and goods, and livestock” (verse 4). This provision puts the reader in mind of Israel’s departure from Egypt several centuries earlier (cf. Exodus 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36). The typological correspondence between the Exodus from Egypt and the Return from Babylon thus appears in this book for the first time. As we see from the second part of the Book of Isaiah (cf. 43:14-21; 48:20-21; 51:10; 52:12), this correspondence was much on the mind of sixth century Jews. We shall see other examples of it during the course of the present book.
Tuesday, October 5
1 John 5:14-21: John now ends this epistle in much the same way he ended his gospel—namely, but by returning to some themes with which he began. For example, John began this epistle by speaking of eternal life as connected with God’s Son: “the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1:2). And now, here at the end, John writes, “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (verse 20).
Similarly in his gospel John had begun by asserting, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” and “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:4,18). And then, at the end of that gospel John wrote, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). This idea is identical to what we find here at the end of the epistle: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (5:13).
John had earlier written of our confidence in God: “when[ He appears, we may have confidence [schomen parresian] and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (2:28), and “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness [parresian echomen] in the day of judgment” (4:17). John thinks of this boldness, or confidence, once again in the context of eternal life: “that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. Now this is the confidence that we have in Him [parresia hen echomen]” (verses 13-14).
In context, this confidence especially pertains to prayer: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (verse 14). This theme, too, he had touched on earlier: “we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him” (3:21-22).
John says, however, that this prayer must be in accordance with God’s will. Prayer must not be just another exercise in selfishness.
An example of prayer “according to God’s will” is a petition made on behalf of an erring brother: “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life” (verse 16).
John exempts from such prayer, however, a sin which is “unto death” (verse 17). By “sin unto death” John apparently means the sort of sin betokening such obduracy of heart that forgiveness is not expected. The problem here is not an unwillingness on God’s part to forgive sins, something that God loves to do and longs to do. The problem is on the part of the sinner, who has deliberately put himself into darkness beyond the light. One recalls, in this connection, the silence with which Jesus met the thief that blasphemed Him on the Cross. Perhaps John intends here the sins of the antichrists (2:18-19).
John’s teaching on the “irretrievability” of certain sins pertains to moral exhortation, not dogmatic refinement. It is of a piece with other New Testament texts, such as Mark 3:29 and Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31.
We behold Christians sinning everyday, but this vision must not obscure to our minds the truth that sin has no proper place in the Christian life. It is something essentially incompatible with rebirth in Christ. Committing sin is not part of the “mix” of being a Christian. It has no legitimate place, so the man begotten of God keeps himself from sin: “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him” (verse 18).
Three times in these closing verses John says, “We know”: “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin . . . We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one. And we know that the Son of God has come” (verses 18-20). John thus gives voice to Christian dogma, which essentially pronounces on the relationship of God and His Son. It is only in this relationship that we can be said to know. And in this knowledge there is eternal life (John 17:3).
Ezra 2: This chapter, which is repeated verbatim in Nehemiah 7, accounts for 49,897 people who returned from Babylon to the Holy Land. This very high figure surely indicates, however, not those who were immediately repatriated in the year 518, but includes, rather, those who came in the ensuing years. That is to say, it includes those who arrived by the time of Nehemiah nearly a century later.
The introductory list of twelve names (verse 2) puts the reader in mind of the twelve original patriarchs of Israel. Both of these lists—like the New Testament’s lists of the twelve Apostles—indicates the fullness of God’s people. They represent “all Israel.”
Those listed in verses 2-20 are named according to their families, those in verses 21-35 according to their towns (which list, curiously, does not mention Jerusalem). This chapter lists a disproportionate number of priests (verses 36-39), which is exactly what we would expect. Since all the sacrificial worship of the Jewish religion, in accordance with the Deuteronomic reform of 622, was limited to Jerusalem, there was certainly no reason for priests to remain in Babylon.
The number of Levites (verse 40), on the other hand, seems disproportionately small, which disproportion will require the adjustments described in Ezra 8:15-20. Nehemiah 7 will list an additional forty-five singers.
These lists of names throughout Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are theologically important. This is the People of God, not an amorphous mass of nondescript ciphers. No one remains nameless in some anonymous flock, because the Good Shepherd knows each of His sheep and calls them all by name. Such lists, therefore, of which Romans 16 is a later example, are precious in the sight of the Lord and deserve to be held precious in our eyes as well. Ultimately the Book of Life itself is just a list of names.
Wednesday, October 6
Ezra 3: The seventh month (verse 1) roughly corresponds to our September, the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. Accordingly, when an outdoor altar was erected so that the sacrificial worship can be resumed, the first feast day to be celebrated was Tabernacles (verse 4). This seems to be a feast very appropriate to the actual living conditions of the returned exiles, who were still obliged to live in tents, lean-tos, and other makeshift dwellings.
Some preparatory work for the construction of the temple began in the spring of the following year (verses 7-8), and there follows an account of the liturgical dedication of the new temple’s foundations, which may have included the floor (verses 10-13). With a lively sense of history the returned exiles dedicated these foundations at the same time of the year when construction had begun on Solomon’s temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:1; 2 Chronicles 3:2).
In verse 7 we find several other points of correspondence that tie the construction of the second temple to Solomon’s construction of the first: the “cedar logs from Lebanon, to the sea, to Joppa”; the skilled workers from Tyre and Sidon; the provision of food and oil (1 Chronicles 22:4; 2 Chronicles 2:8,10).
Verse 11 gives the refrain of the psalm chanted during the laying of the foundation stone, evidently indicating that the psalm employed on this occasion was Psalm 136 (Greek 135). This makes perfect sense and serves to illustrate the context of certain lines in that psalm. For example, the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the return to the Holy Land are indicated in the lines that read, "who remembered us in our low estate . . . and redeemed us from our enemies." The older members among the returned exiles, who still remembered vividly the splendors of Solomon’s temple, wept on this occasion, overcome by emotion (verse 12). They could also see, by examining the dimensions of its foundation, that this next temple will be appreciably smaller than Solomon’s (cf. Haggai 2:3; Zechariah 4:10). Eventually the new temple would prove satisfactory only to those who had never laid eyes on the old one.
Psalm 128 (Greek and Latin 127): This psalm speaks of the history of persecution and the Lord’s constant deliverance of His people in the face of it: “‘Many times have they warred against me from my youth,’ let Israel now say, ‘many times have they warred against me from my youth, but they could not prevail against me.’ The sinful contrived behind my back, perpetual in iniquity; but the righteous Lord broke the necks of the sinful.”
This persecution is described as warfare—“they warred against me.” The Greek verb here is epolemesan, a close inspection of which will remind one of the cognate word, “polemics.” Ours being a fallen world, life in the service of God provokes any amount of such polemics. As we have had occasion to reflect many times in these pages, the Book of Psalms is a prayer book for warriors.
And when began this persecution of—this polemic against—God’s people? “From my youth” would seem to place the beginnings of the experience pretty far back in Israel’s memory. Perhaps one might think of the early oppressions by the Egyptians (Ex. 1:14), or the Moabites (Judges. 3:14), or the Canaanites (4:3), or the Midianites (6:6), or the Ammonites (10:9; 1 Samuel 11:2), and so on. The polemic against the righteous, however, goes back further still. “From my youth” would seem to include even the murder of righteous Abel (Genesis 4:8), who, we are told, “offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous” (Hebrews 11:4). Indeed, Christ our Lord apparently took “from my youth” to begin at that exact point, for He spoke of “all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah” (Matthew 23:35). And in this same context the Lord further prophesied that this persecution, this relentless polemic, will continue yet: “I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city” (23:34).
For all that, says our psalm, “they could not prevail against me.” Indeed, they cannot prevail, whether by “persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me” (2 Tim. 3:11). Therefore, we take heart from this repeated experience of God’s deliverance: “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8, 9).
Thursday, October 7
Haggai 2: The first oracle in this chapter was given on October 5, 520 B.C. (verse 1) The twentieth day of the month Tishri was the fifth day of the week called the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Leviticus 23:34), an autumnal harvest celebration (cf. Deuteronomy 16:13) that paralleled our own Thanksgiving Day.
In the year 520 that festival was especially significant, because God’s people had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, a replacement for the temple destroyed by the Babylonians sixty-six years earlier. As they rebuilt it, however, a very disappointing fact was becoming clear to the people — namely, that this new structure, when finally completed, was going to be pretty small, because the people had nowhere near the financial resources available to Solomon when he had constructed the first temple four centuries earlier.
Like the men who were building it, this new temple would be poor (verse 3; cf. Ezra 3:12-13). Nonetheless, said Haggai, this new house of God would be adorned, in due course, with silver and riches from around the world (verses 7-9).
A literal translation of verse 7 from the Hebrew ("I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of the nations will come in") makes perfect sense, meaning that Jews from all over the world, coming to the new temple on pilgrimage, would continue to adorn and expand it until "the glory of the latter house would outshine that of the former." However, the ancient Christian Latin translation of this verse (reflected, curiously, in the King James Version), reads, et veniet Desideratus cunctis gentibus, which means, "and He who is desired by the nations will come." This translation is echoed, of course, in the final verse of the old Veni Emmanuel hymn adapted from the "O Antiphons" of Advent, "O Come, Desire of nations, bind / in one the hearts of all mankind." That is to say, the new temple of Haggai’s era was the very temple into which Jesus, the One desired by the nations, would enter.
Ezra 4: At Judah’s deportation back in 586, the Holy Land was left rather much at the disposition of those people who would, in due course, be called the Samaritans. (And, purely for shorthand, that is what we will call them here.) They were a hybrid race from the miscegenation of native Israelites and those Gentiles who had been imported into the region by the Assyrians after the fall of Samaria in 722.
In the eyes of those Jews who were now returning home from Babylon, the religion of the Samaritans seemed as compromised as the purity of their bloodlines. If the lessons of the recent Captivity had taught these exiles anything, it was the necessity of avoiding contact—to say nothing of intermarriage–with those who professed to be Israelites but whose identity as Israelites was deeply compromised. In spite of overtures from these native inhabitants (verse 2), therefore, the Jewish leadership steadfastly insisted on a policy of separation from them.
This decision of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (verse 3) commenced an important new development in the history of Judaism (cf. Haggai 2:12; Zechariah 3:9; John 4:9; 4:48). This new attitude contrasted sharply with that of King Josiah a century earlier, for he had invited these same people into the fullness of the Israelite worship and religion. The new policy, however, took into consideration the fact that the religion practiced in the Holy Land had been for a long time contaminated by idolatry and syncretism. The purity of the Jewish faith had been purchased at the great price of the Babylonian Captivity, and the Jewish leadership was not about to risk its corruption once again, thereby creating those same conditions that had led to Jerusalem’s downfall.
As we shall see, nonetheless, relatively few women were among the returning exiles. Consequently, many of the latter, who were young, unmarried men, would in due course take wives from the local population, in quiet defiance of their leaders. This defiance would lead to new problems that we will meet in the rest of Ezra and Nehemiah.
As we would expect, the local inhabitants, resentful of their exclusion from the company of the returning Jews, began to resist and confront them. Three stages are discernable in their animosity: their conspiracy to prevent the rebuilding of the temple (verses 1-5), their sustained effort to oppose that project, and their success in the opposition (verse 24).
Several other features of this chapter are worth observation:
First, we note the growing importance of the high priest, who in this book seems to enjoy a political authority nearly equal to the governor. In this book (as in Haggai and Zechariah), the two of them are often mentioned together. Perhaps the roots of this near parity should be sought in the Exile, when the Jews, who no longer had their own king, turned to the priestly families for leadership.
Second, we observe that the extensive Persian Empire (which would soon stretch from the Indus River to the Danube!) was blessed with a remarkably efficient postal system (verses 6-7). This gave cohesion to its political and economic institutions.
Third, our attention is drawn to Persia’s system of chancellors, or regional secretaries, who were directly responsible to the capital (verse 17). This institution, which clearly limited the power of the satraps themselves, demonstrated the empire’s mistrust of local governments that might become too powerful.
Fourth, we observe that the long final part of this chapter (verses 6-9) interrupts the chronological sequence. It is concerned with a later period of the general story, for it takes place during the reigns of Darius I (Ahasuerus), 485-465, and Artaxerxes I, 465-424. This narrative is inserted into this place, apparently as a further example of ill will on the part of the native population.
Friday, October 8
Ezra 5: By separating its Wisdom literature from its prophetic books, the Bible also hints at a distinction between the vocations of the prophet and the sage. Without exaggerating this distinction—because in principle both callings may be found in a single person—it is worth inquiring, I think, in what way the prophet and the sage are different.
Let me suggest that at least part of the difference between them is the way they handle time and the events that take place within time.
Generally speaking, the prophet must deal with time on the move—as it approaches, so to speak. His hands touch time in the present and at those points where the future promises to become present. His words are burdened with the moral imperative of the instant, the kairos, where a decision is required. Events are taking place, or at least about to take place, which require the prophet to proclaim God's understanding of them. Normally, the mind of the prophet is seized and preoccupied by the dynamisms of the active moment.
It is different with the sage. Not usually caught up in time as it passes, the sage enjoys the leisure to reflect on time that has elapsed and to ponder things that have already come to pass. For this reason, one does not expect to find in Wisdom literature the pressing energy and sense of immediacy that are normal in the prophetic books. Although the sage may counsel some moral decision on the part of the reader, it is not customary for him to demand it with the urgency of the prophet. As an event in biblical history that illustrates this difference, let me suggest the 18 years delay in the construction of the second temple.
When Israel's exiles returned from Babylon in 538 B.C., they carried an official decree, issued by Cyrus himself, that their ancient temple should be rebuilt. Indeed, the materials necessary for that rebuilding were quickly procured. For various reasons, nonetheless, chiefly opposition from local folks inimical to the returning exiles, the reconstruction was delayed until 520. Five years were required to finish it, and the temple was at last completed on March 12, 515.
Now it happens that that recorded delay receives two different interpretations in Holy Scripture, one in the Book of Ezra and the other in two prophetic books: Haggai and Zechariah.
Let us start with the prophets, the two men alive and active in 520, the very ones who inspired the resumption of the project. The preoccupation of Haggai and Zechariah was immediate, determined, and of an entirely moral impulse. Those prophets blamed the prolonged delay on a lack of resolve on the part of the returning exiles, whom they accused of losing their vision. Instead of building God's house, they had spent nearly two decades building their own houses. They were reprimanded, therefore, for failing to seek first the kingdom of heaven. Thus, Haggai and Zechariah took charge of the "moment" and required the proper moral resolve from their countrymen. This is the sort of thing prophets do.
When we turn to the Book of Ezra, on the other hand, the outlook is completely different. Here we find the approach of the sage, the man of cultivated pondering, who sets his sights from a larger and more reflective angle. His is a perspective almost completely uninterested in an immediate moral concern. Thus, the author of Ezra utters not a word of reproach for the failure of the returning exiles with respect to the delay in the temple's reconstruction.
He endeavors, rather, to examine that 18-year postponement from the viewpoint of divine providence. After all, the sage reflects, no more could the building of the second temple be just the execution of a decree of Cyrus, than the building of the first temple was simply a project mandated by David. It was significant that both these kings died before the construction was even begun. Truly, who among kings is authorized to build a house for the Lord? The Lord will see to the building of His own house at such time as He sees fit!
Consequently, our sage perceives another correspondence in the two cases: Each construction project had to await the Lord's command, conveyed in the prophetic word—that of Nathan in the case of David, that of Haggai and Zechariah in the case of Cyrus.
The approach to time and events in the Book of Ezra, then, is very different from that of the prophets. It is the perspective of the theological sage, who surveys with serenity what great works the wise Lord of history has caused to come about.