Friday, February 25
Proverbs 6: This chapter begins with four short poems that depict the qualities of folly. The first poem (verses 1-5) warns against financial irresponsibility in the form of unwise generosity towards one’s friends. Financial entanglements have spoiled many a friendship, and exhortations on this matter appear rather often in the Book of Proverbs (11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27).
The second poem (verses 6-11) is directed against laziness. Like Aesop, the author sends us to the animal world for moral lessons (24:30-34). The Septuagint version adds a consideration of the bee here to that of the ant.
The third poem (verses 12-15) depicts the ne’er-do-well schemer, full of plans for his own quick profit and the disadvantage of his fellow men. Avoid him, is the counsel.
The fourth poem (verses 16-19) is the first of the “numerical proverbs” in this book. These are found in all parts of the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 32:30; Amos 1—2; Micah 5:4; Job 5:19; 40:5; Sirach 25:7; 26:5,19), and Proverbs will later give a series of them (30:15-31).
In verses 20-23 wisdom is described very much the way Deuteronomy describes the Law. Indeed, the two things are nearly identified here (cf. especially verse 23, which may remind readers of Psalms 19 and 119).
The last part of the chapter (verses 24-35) returns to the theme of the adventurous woman, who would lure the young man to an early destruction. She is more dangerous than a thief (verses 30-35). Although the earlier penalty for adultery in Israel was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 22:22), the punishment envisaged here seems to be the humiliation of a flogging (verse 33).
Matthew 17:14-21: When the man approaches Jesus (verse 14), he kneels down—gonypeton, literally “bending the knee”—before Jesus. That is to say, he assumes before Jesus the posture of prayer (contrast Mark 9:14-17). Like Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, he kneels before Jesus in prayer. This is the second time in two consecutive scenes in Matthew where kneeling is the proper posture in the presence of Jesus. In Matthew, then, the scene is one of worship and prayerful petition. And what does the man say to Jesus when he kneels down? Kyrie, eleison! — “Lord, have mercy!”
This kneeling down, or prostration, in prayer is not simply a generic act of worship. It is specified by its Christological reference. Indeed, in the former scene, the Transfiguration, the disciples fall into this posture when they hear the voice of the Father identifying Jesus as His Son. Their posture is a theophanic response (cf. Revelation 1:16-17). Here in Matthew (verse 15) the man bends the knee Avton–“towards Him.”
And in kneeling down he addresses Jesus as “Lord”–Kyrios. We should contrast this with Mark’s account, which addresses Jesus here as “Teacher”–Didaskalos. Matthew, that is to say, uses the full confessional word of the Christian faith (cf. Philippians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 12:3).
Saturday, February 26
Proverbs 7: The Book of Proverbs’ sustained warnings against sexual aberration, especially adultery, which directly attacks the institution of the family, argue that one of man’s chief areas of stewardship is sex. Moreover, the book’s several warnings about adulteresses should be viewed as integral to the image of wisdom as Lady Wisdom, which a wise man is said to take as a bride. And just as Lady Wisdom becomes personified in a man’s own wife, Dame Folly is personified in the adulteress. The entire present chapter is devoted to this theme.
Mockery and sarcasm, rhetorical forms used in both the prophetic and sapiential literature of the Bible with some frequency, enjoy the advantage that comes of not taking someone or something as worthy of serious consideration. This chapter illustrates the advantage. The adventurous woman is held up to considerable ridicule, and so is the young fool who falls for her. Indeed, the young man is here given the very words and gestures that she will employ to seduce him. She commences with flattery (verses 5,21); that is to say, she gives the young man “a positive self-image.” (A man who builds his self-confidence on a woman’s approval already demonstrates his immaturity. Prior to the present age it was taken as axiomatic that a young man should not even seek a woman’s approval, and had no right to expect it, until he had proven himself among men in manly pursuits.)
We see the young man walking down the street, dripping with inexperience, a virtual lamb ambling toward the slaughter (verses 6-7). The very fool, he is strolling aimlessly after dark (verse 6-7; Sirach 9:7), unaware that, even if he is not looking for trouble, trouble is looking for him (verses 10-12). The restless lady comes along and promises him a rollicking good time (verses 13-18), mentioning that her husband will be out of town for a while (verses 19-20). (One thinks of Mrs. Potiphar approaching Joseph in Genesis 39.) Thus is the young fellow suckered into sin (verses 21-23). The chapter ends with the exhortation to be on guard, especially to keep custody of the heart (verse 25). What is to be eschewed is the path to death (verse 27), the other of the Two Ways.
Romans 12:14-21: Paul tells the Romans not to hold grudges against persecutors. In view of the terrible persecution of Christians that will break out in Rome during the next decade, this was uncommonly timely counsel. Paul’s wording of the quotation from Deuteronomy 32:35 in verse 19 differs from both the Septuagint and the extant (Massoretic) Hebrew text, but it is identical with the quotation in Hebrews 10:30. Was there another version of this passage common among the early Christians? The meaning, in any case, is clear enough. Christians are to leave to God all revenge and settling of scores. They are always to pursue good, never evil. Evil is the Christian’s only true enemy (verse 21).
Sunday, February 27
Proverbs 8: In this chapter personified Lady Wisdom herself speaks. Like the adulteress in the previous chapter, she, too, goes seeking the young man in the streets of the city (verse 2). She, too, appeals to the heart (verse 5). We observe, however, that she does not use flattery. The young man really needs her, and he has nothing to commend him without her.
In the biblical view, God has first loved us, not we God. Man can seek for wisdom, only inasmuch as wisdom seeks for man. And it is all men that she seeks (verse 4), not merely the Jews.
Wisdom teaches truth, the opposite of which is not merely error, but wickedness (verse 7), and truth is identified with righteousness (verse 8). Wisdom is the highest good, the treasure buried in the field, for the sake of which a man will sell all that he has, in order to purchase that field (verses 10-11). Wisdom is the source of order and justice (verses 12-16). Hence, it is exactly what is required for a man to bring his life into a just order. What a man must have in his heart is the “love of wisdom” (verse 17), an expression called philosophia in Greek. All other gifts come from wisdom (verse 18-19).
Wisdom is the creating companion of God (verses 22-29; Sirach 1:4,8; Colossians 1:15). As such, wisdom is older and more substantial than the physical world (Sirach 24:1-21; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-28). Indeed, wisdom was the Creator’s architect (verses 27-30).
Such is the wisdom concerned in the chapter’s final exhortation (verses 32-36), which is best read as the verso of the exhortation that closed the previous chapter (7:24-27).
Romans 13:1-7: Beginning with the believer’s relationship to other believers, and going on with respect to those outside the community of faith, Paul now addresses the Christian’s relationship to the political order (verses 1-7).
One is impressed by Paul’s attitude of respect, deference, and obedience toward the civil authority, not simply because that authority carries the power to exact such an attitude, but also because such an attitude is required by conscience (verse 5). Respect and obedience to the State, in Paul’s view, is demanded by God’s own ordinance, because ultimately the State holds its authority from God. (Contrast this view with that of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.) The State is "God’s minister" (verse 4).
Generally speaking, then—and proper exception being made for laws that violate the moral order—the dictates and decisions of government are binding in conscience; they are not simply penal laws. That is to say, in those instances where the State does not contravene God’s own law, the State speaks for God and is a valid channel for the discovery of God’s will.
Lest we be too quick to imagine that Paul is thinking of the State in very idealistic terms, we may bear in mind that the emperor at that time was Nero, and the State of Paul’s reference was the Roman Empire. This empire had earlier expelled the Jews, including Christians, from Rome only a decade before (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, "Claudius" 25), and about four years after writing this epistle Paul himself would be executed by this same authority. Three years after that, moreover, the full weight of the imperial government would come down hard on the Christians at Rome in a fearful persecution. In other words, Paul’s attitude toward Rome was not one of convenience, but of principle (cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 5.24.1).
Paul’s affirmations here bear witness to an important feature of Christian anthropology. They testify that man’s relationship to God is not limited to the specifically religious and cultic sphere; Man is also related to God in the political, social, cultural, and economic spheres of his existence in this world. Man’s relationship to God, in other words, is inseparable from his relationship to everything else.
We observe Paul’s presumption that Christians pay taxes (verse 6; Matthew 22:21).
Monday, February 28
Proverbs 9: This chapter illustrates a contrast between two vastly different meals. From the “highest places of the city” (verses 3,14), both wisdom and folly invite “whoever is simple,” the man who “lacks understanding,” to “turn in here” (verses 4,16), which is to say, to their respective “houses” (verses 1,14). Their respective meals are quite different; the meat and wine of wisdom (verse 2) are contrasted with the bread and water of folly (verse 17). The former meal brings nourishment, whereas the latter is lethal (verse 18). (The contrast between the two women—Wisdom and Folly—in this chapter may be compared with the contrast between the two women, Babylon and Jerusalem, the Whore and the Bride, in the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation.)
If the young man thus admonished is a “scorner,” wisdom’s warning will go unheeded (verse 6), because wisdom is wasted on a fool (cf. Matthew 7:6). Once again, the beginning of wisdom is reverence (verse 10).
The “seven pillars” of the house of wisdom (verse 1) became the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy) of the medieval university. Seven, as the number of fullness, was important to the very concept of a university, or house of universal knowledge.
Romans 13:8-14: Paul returns briefly to the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law (verses 8-10). Does Christian freedom imply that believers are no longer bound by the Decalogue? Hardly, says Paul, but the general Christian command to love one’s neighbor as oneself more than adequately summarizes those components of the Decalogue that concern our fellow man. That is to say, even the Decalogue is now read through a new lens.
Once again Paul speaks of salvation as reality that lies yet in the future, a future that is now closer than when we first became believers. (verse 11). As we have seen repeatedly, in Romans the vocabulary of salvation is commonly associated with the return of Christ and the general resurrection of the body.
Meanwhile, Christians are to "wake up" to the newness of life in Christ (verses 11-12; 1 Thessalonians 6:6; 1 Corinthians 15:34; Ephesians 5:14).
Tuesday, March 1
Proverbs 10: We now come to the central core of this book (Chapters 10-22), the 375 aphorisms gathered by Solomon (verse 1). In this respect, it is surely significant that 375 is exactly the numerical value of the Hebrew letters that make up the name “Solomon.”
This central core of Proverbs is divided into two parts, a division based on both literary style and philosophical outlook.
In the first section, Chapters 10 through 15, most of the aphorisms (10:19, for instance, is an exception to this rule) are structured on an antithetical couplet, in which there is a contrast between components in the first and second lines: just/wicked, prudent/foolish, wealth/poverty, accept/refuse, and so forth. In this first section the outlook of the aphorisms is not openly religious, as a rule, but simply “true to life.”
In the second section, Chapters 16 through 22, the couplets are synthetic and complementary, not antithetical, as a rule. In each couplet, rather, the second line completes or extends some component in the first line: the refinement of silver/the testing of souls, loving friend/constant brother, and so on. In this second section, likewise, the outlook or tone is “preachy,” or exhortatory, and more explicitly religious.
Within each section, smaller groups sometimes bind the aphorisms together by either theme or by some rhetorical device. These latter include, for instance, simple expressions common to each maxim, even though the maxims themselves deal with different subjects. An example is 10:16-17.
Considerable stress is laid throughout on the control of the tongue (for instance, verses 19-21,31-32), in terms that will remind us of James 1:9 and 3:2-12.
All through this central core we observe that wisdom is identified with righteousness, suggesting that Solomon would have no trouble with Socrates’ identification of knowledge with virtue. The knowledge itself is moral, the wisdom derived from acting wisely. Folly, likewise, is not a lack of IQ, but a moral failing.
Romans 14:1-13: Although there is no evidence that the Roman congregation experienced internal controversies about dietary and liturgical customs carried over from Judaism, Paul decided to treat here of a particular pastoral problem attendant on those points; namely, differences of conscientious sensitivity among believers.
This latter concern remains a matter of continued relevance. Although Christians long ago lost their lingering attachment to Jewish dietary customs and liturgical observances, they still sometimes find themselves divided, even today, on a variety of other subjects. These include, for instance, drinking alcoholic and using tobacco.
Paul’s fundamental principle seems clear enough: Christians are to show to one another that level of respect, kindness, and deference that will free each of them from harsh judgment or ridicule, carping, or shock. The guiding virtues to be cultivated in this respect are faith (verses 22-23), charity (verse 15), and the imitation of Christ (verses 9,15; 15:3,7-8).
The prohibition against judging other members of the congregation is especially forceful in this chapter. The verb "to judge," krinein,, appears eight times. One recalls the Lord’s example of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11.
The "weak" in most congregations will often be the newer members, or even the conscientious inquirers, who are just beginning to find their way in the Christian life (verses 1-5). Particularly sensitive in conscience, such individuals are frequently shocked and disedified by the behavior of other Christians, whom they may perceive as less zealous, or even lax. These "weak" Christians are exhorted not to pass judgment on others, and the others, in turn, are exhorted not to ridicule or shock the "weak." On the contrary, the latter should receive support and encouragement in the difficult early stages of their journey. One recalls here the Lord’s warning to those who scandalize the "little ones," those relatively inexperienced Christians who are new in the discernment of good and evil, right and wrong.
The important point is to serve the Lord, to whom we all belong (verses 6-8; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). The example held before us is Christ, who neither lived nor died for Himself, but for us (verse 9).
If our knees are bent in prayer and our voices raised in praise, we will be amply busy and occupied, with neither time nor psychic energy to judge, criticize, or ridicule fellow Christians (verse 12).
Wednesday, March 2
Proverbs 11: In the midst of this practical, somewhat secular wisdom, we find some maxims of a religious nature (verse 20; cf. also 10:3,22; 12:2; 15:3,8,33; 16:1-7,9). Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, even secular prudence in the Bible has a religious basis (verse 1). Biblical practicality, however, is not the same thing as modern pragmatism, which is intrinsically skeptical and essentially selfish. Skepticism and selfishness are really not very practical.
The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs comes from outside this world, but it is not other-worldly. It is this-worldly, in the sense that God formed the structures in this world, according to which man must live. The divine law is written into the composition of this world, so that those who live in accordance with the divine law are the ones who are most in touch with the reality of this world itself. Since the whole world is founded on the wisdom of God, those who live in accordance with this wisdom will be the world’s most practical people.
Among the themes touched on in this chapter are commercial honesty (verse 1; cf. 16:11; 20:10; Leviticus 19:35-36; Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Amos 8:5-6; 12:8; Micah 6:10-11), the dangers of pride (verse 2), integrity as a guide (verse 3), the salvific fruit of righteousness (verses 4-9,18-19), control of the tongue (verses 12-13), the importance of a breadth of views (verse 14), and the value of a generous spirit (verses 24-26).
Romans 14:14-23: Paul continues the theme from the previous section, going on to exhort believers to peacemaking and edification (verse 19). In these verses, however, his exhortation is directed to the stronger, more confident Christians who may, even by mere inadvertence, create crises of conscience for their fellow believers.
The example chosen by Paul to illustrate this point is the eating of certain foods, particularly meats, which the Mosaic Law classifies as common (koinon) or unclean, foods that are not kosher. Paul is certain that Christians may eat such foods with a safe conscience (verses 1-5; Acts 10:9-15).
The Apostle recognized, nonetheless, that some Christians, from habits long adhered to, could not really eat such food with a safe conscience, because they had not yet arrived at a level of faith and Christian maturity that would enable them to do so. (Here he is not talking about the faith through which a Christian is justified, of course, but of faith as an effective principle in making moral decisions.)
If these latter Christians, then, were recklessly to follow the example of stronger, more mature believers, there was a genuine danger of their violating their own consciences. They would be eating for some reason other than faith—perhaps human respect or perceived social pressure—and this would constitute sin (verse 23). In short, it is never a safe or laudable thing to act against one’s conscience.
What should the stronger Christian do in such a case? He should forego his own freedom in the matter, says Paul, in order not to lead the weaker brother into sin, even inadvertently (verses 15,20-23). Peace and charity, that is to say, take precedence over the exercise of freedom (verses 17-18). Freedom, as the result of charity, must never be exercised at the expense of charity.
Moreover, a Christian should relinquish his freedom even in those instances when the exercise thereof would bring distress to another Christian (verse 15). In other words, a Christian must go out of his way, if need be, to avoid distressing fellow believers. The proper motive is love, inspired by the death of Jesus (verse 15).
In all these comments Paul enunciates essentially the same thesis he defended in Galatians 2:11-17, and which will appear later in Colossians 2:20-22 and Mark 7:19.
Thursday, March 3
Proverbs 12: The chapter continues the series of couplets containing contrasts: love/hate (verse 1), good/wicked (verse 2), wickedness/righteousness (verse 3), virtuous wife/shameful wife (verse 4), and so on.
Such sustained emphasis on contrasts and distinctions should put to rest the recent idea that biblical teaching is non-analytical and non-critical. For several generations some of those who dislike classical philosophy have pretended that “Semitic thinking” is unlike “Greek thinking” in this respect. They have told us that the Greeks applied critical distinctions to dissect ideas and look at them in an objective, detached way that separated the knower from the known. On the other hand, the Semites (so the story goes) took a unitive approach to knowledge, in which the knower became identified with what was known.
This version of the matter, however, involves an oversimplification that does justice to neither the Semites nor the Greeks. While it is true that the common Semitic verb for knowing, yada‘, implies union rather than division (as in “Adam knew his wife”), another common Semitic verb for knowing, bin, means knowledge of a discursive, critical sort. Both aspects of knowledge, that is to say, are contained in Semitic epistemology.
Similarly, with respect to the Greeks, the application of critical, objective distinctions, of the sort characteristic of dialectics, should not be taken as the goal of classical Greek philosophy. Dialectics is a means, rather, of arriving at metaphysical contemplation, gnosis (the Sanskrit jnana), in which the knower and the known are united.
In short, the differences between Greek and Semitic approaches to knowledge cannot be reduced to the elementary distinction between analytical and contemplative knowledge. Nor can either approach be reduced to a single, simple description.
Romans 15:1-13: From dealing with the possible conflicts of conscience among Christians in chapter 14, Paul goes on to enunciate the guiding principle for the resolution of such conflicts, namely, the example of Jesus, and more specifically the example that Jesus demonstrated in His suffering and death (verse 3.)
In other words, the sufferings and death of Jesus, in addition to being the efficient cause of our redemption and reconciliation to God, also provide the exemplary type of the Christian moral life (verse 7). Some years earlier Paul had made such a case when treating of congregational problems in Macedonia (Philippians 2:5-10).
The Christian’s moral life, then, is not merely personal and private; it is social (verses 1-2,5-7). Paul knows nothing about personal holiness apart from life and responsibilities in the Church. (For this Christian thesis we may see a pagan adumbration in the traditional Spartan theory of education, in which “virtue,” areteI, is invariably social and unselfish.)
The exercise of freedom is never a goal or final purpose in the Christian life; it is, rather, the proper ambience and atmosphere of the Christian life. Freedom for freedom’s sake is unknown in the Holy Scriptures. Christian freedom is ever at the service of Christian charity.
Divine charity was the motive of Jesus’ assumption of our sins in His self-offering upon the cross (verse 3; 8:32-35). In support of this thesis Paul invokes the authority of Psalms 69 (68):10, a verse descriptive (as is the whole psalm) of Jesus’ sufferings.
Then, having appealed to the Old Testament in order to throw light on a specific Christian theme, Paul enunciates the principle on which such an appeal is based, namely, the Christocentricity of the Hebrew Scriptures. Since the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ, and thereby finds its full doctrinal meaning in Christ, its proper moral application is in the lives of Christians (verse 4). This application is what Christian theology calls the moral or tropological sense of Holy Scripture (cf. P. H. Reardon, "Scripture Saturation," Christian History 22/4 [Winter 2003-04], pp. 30-34).
Finally, the joining of the Gentiles with the Jews is not only a doctrinal fact (verses 8-12), it is a principle of moral behavior for those so joined (verses 7,13).
We observe that the imitation of Jesus is a basic behavior pattern throughout this section, as in the whole New Testament (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; Philippians 2:5-8; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Mark 8:34; 1 Peter 2:21; John 13:15).
Friday, March 4
Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as an inheritance or he will simply never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of one’s tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.
This habit of guarding one’s tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the “silent just man” became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The "silent just man” maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.
It was proverbial in antiquity, and not only in Egypt, that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he had learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.
Romans 15:14-21: Paul now proceeds to introduce himself more completely to the congregation at Rome, a city he plans to visit in the near future for the first time. In the present verses he says a bit about himself and his ministry, evidently feeling that such information is necessary, given the strong and authoritative tone that he has adopted in this epistle (verses 15-16).
Paul commences these remarks with a polite and positive sentiment about the congregation at Rome (verse 14), an approach he employs elsewhere in his letters (2 Corinthians 8:7; 9:2-3; Philippians 4:15). In the present case such an approach is particularly appropriate, because he is conscious of writing to a church that he had no hand in founding (1:5,13). Because of this latter circumstance, Paul does not enjoy the advantage of immediate paternity and familiarity that he enjoys in the churches of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Greece.
He feels compelled to write to the Romans, however, because he senses a responsibility that he has toward all the Gentile Christians (verse 16 [Note the Trinitarian structure]; 1:5; 12:3; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 2:7-8).
Like Jesus preaching in Galilee (Mark 6:6), Paul has maintained a preaching "circuit" (kyklo, the Greek root of "cycle"—verse 19), first centered in Antioch and later in Ephesus. (Observe that the churches of Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Colossae form a sort of semi-hub around Ephesus.) We note here that the bishops of these large metropolitan areas in due course became known as archbishops and metropolitans. This was a natural development, since the outlying cities had been evangelized by missionaries from the larger ones. This historical circumstance is what accounts for the immense authority of the bishops of Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome in early church history.
Up to this point in his ministry, the extreme limits of Paul’s evangelizing have been Jerusalem in the southeast and Illyricum, or Dalmatia (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo), in the northwest. It has ever been Paul’s goal to preach Christ where He has not been hitherto preached (verse 20; 2 Corinthians 10:15-16; 1 Corinthians 3:6).
Miracles and wonders have frequently attended Paul’s preaching (Acts 12:22; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4).
Paul describes his ministry with a liturgical and sacerdotal term, hierogounta to Evangelion tou Theou, "serving the Gospel of God as a priest," or even "priesting the Gospel of God" (cf. Isaiah 66:20). This is one of our first instances of a specifically priestly term used to describe the ordained Christian ministry.