Friday, August 17

Second Kings 16: We come to the reign of Ahaz of Judah (735-715), a period documented, not only in Kings, but also in the Book of Isaiah. During this time, Assyria begins to flex new muscles, with the intent to take charge of the entire Fertile Crescent.

In 752, ten years before Isaiah’s prophetic call, the Assyrian Empire adopts Aramaic, the common language of the Fertile Crescent, as its official language, in addition to the traditional Akkadian. Assyria is about to enlarge its field of influence, and the careers of the kings of Judah and Israel—as well as the prophetic ministry of Isaiah—are set within that geopolitical context.

This was the whole point of the notice at the beginning of the Book of Isaiah: “The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” These were the years from 742 to 687 before Christ, the absolute high point of Assyrian power. Tiglath Pileser III, who became emperor in 745, just three years before Isaiah’s call, ruled until 727. Other notable emperors of this period were Shalmaneser V (727-722), Sargon II (722-705) and Sennacherib (704-681).

With respect to Assyrian warfare during this second half of the eighth century, the extant art of the period confirms what is described in the Bible; it depicts charioteers breaking through enemy lines that have been decimated by Assyrian archery. Following the chariots comes the infantry, to make certain no one escapes.

An inscription of Sennacherib illustrates this process:

At the command of the god Ashur, the great Lord, I rushed upon the enemy like the approach of a hurricane…I put them to rout and turned them back. I transfixed the troops of the enemy with javelins and arrows. Humban-undasha, the commander in chief of the king of Elam, together with his nobles…I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariot were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with corpses of their warriors like herbage.

The terrain of Mesopotamia largely determined this style of warfare. On the open plain, defensive posturing was not possible. Assyria’s two major cities, Asshur and Nineveh, stood between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which afforded only minimum protection. It was the Assyrian style to “take it to the enemy.” Survival depended on the total destruction of an enemy. We gain some sense of this in Isaiah 5, which gives us a very graphic presentation of the invincible Assyrian might, using a staccato style evocative of a Blitzkrieg:

No one will be weary or stumble among them,

No one will slumber or sleep;

Nor will the belt on their loins be loosed,

Nor the strap of their sandals be broken;

Whose arrows are sharp,

And all their bows bent;

Their horses’ hooves will seem like flint,

And their wheels like a whirlwind.

Their roaring will be like a lion.

In response to this Assyrian threat, Syria and Israel form a military league. Feeling threatened by this coalition, Ahaz of Judah appeals directly to Assyria for help. As the present chapter shows, this appeal simply makes the Kingdom of Judah a mere vassal of Assyria, thus introducing new forms of apostasy and idolatry.

Saturday, August 18

Second Kings 17: We come now to the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the deportation of the Ten Tribes, and the enforced “importation” of foreigners into the Holy Land by the forces of Assyria.

An individual named Hosea (not to be confused with the prophet of that name) assassinated King Pekah and seized the throne in 732 (15:30). In fact, it was Shalmaneser V of Assyria who placed on the throne, making him a vassal of the empire. The record of this development was inscribed in a contemporary document, the Nimrud Tablet, in which Shalmaneser testified, “They deposed Pekah, and I set Hosea over them.”

When Hosea proved treacherous to the Assyrian alliance, however, he was removed from the throne, and the new emperor, Sargon II (722-705), deported great masses of the population to the east; they were never again to return.

Sargon recorded this event in another contemporary (and fragmentary) inscription, the Nimrud Prism: “At the beginning [of my rule . . . the city of the Sa]maritans I . . . who let me achieve victory . . . carried off prisoner.” This partial testimony supports what is said here in Kings: “In the ninth year of Hosea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria” (verse 6). The year was 722, the first year of Sargon’s reign.

Our biblical historian reflects on the theological significance of these sad events, ascribing their cause to the idolatry which had prevailed in Israel since that fateful day in 922 when Jeroboam had revolted against the house of David (verses 7-23). Throughout that whole period, when the Lord “spoke by all his servants the prophets”—Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea—the divine word was treated with insouciance and contempt by the kings and their people.

The Assyrians, following their practice of deporting rebellious populations, not only removed the masses of the Israelites to the east; they also imported eastern peoples into Israel. These intermarried with what was left of the local population, thus creating a hybrid race known in Holy Scripture as the Samaritans. This new race, which followed a different form of the biblical faith (verses 24-28), also continued the infidelities of the earlier Israelites in the land (verses 29-41). In due course they were evangelized, however, by Jesus and the Christian missionaries (cf. John 4 passim; Acts 1:8; 8:4-8).

Sunday, August 19

Acts 26:12-32: Since there is already a substantial comment on King Hezekiah in today’s reading in The Saint James Daily Devotional Guide, our comments here will turn to the ministry of Paul, as recorded in the assigned reading from The Acts of the Apostles.

As we take up this text, Paul continues recounting his own history, not omitting his earlier persecutions of Christians, and then goes on to describe his conversion. We have here the third and most elaborate account of that event in the Acts of the Apostles and the only version of the story to contain the detail about Paul’s “kicking against the goad,” a metaphor for resistance to divine grace. This detail insinuates that Paul had already been feeling the pangs of conscience for his grievous mistreatment of Christians. This verse suggests, then, that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus represented a sort of climax to a spiritual struggle already being waged in his own soul.

In this experience Paul was “grabbed” by Christ (Philippians 3:12), and a radical destiny was laid upon him (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). Like Ezekiel (2:1-2), he is told to stand on his feet (verse 16). Indeed, this account of Paul’s calling should be compared with the stories of the callings of several of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. What Paul is called to preach is the fulfillment of all that the prophets wrote. Thus, various prophetic themes appear in this account of his call. For example, there is the metaphor of the opening of the eyes from darkness to light (cf. Isaiah 42:7,16). Paul clearly regards his ministry as a completion of the work of Moses and the prophets (verse 22).

When Paul mentions the Resurrection, however, Festus believes that he has gone too far. Paul’s excessive study of literature (polla grammata) — that is to say, the Bible — has caused his mind to snap, Festus asserts, so that the Apostle can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy.

In this response of Festus we discern the reaction of the pagan world to this most Christian of doctrines — the Resurrection. Greco-Roman culture, with its chronic disrespect for the material world (as evidenced, for example, in the Roman and Hindu custom of cremating dead bodies), would have scanty respect for the doctrine of resurrection, which takes so seriously the holiness inherent in the human body sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The situation is not so different today.

Monday, August 20

Second Kings 19: Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria (704-681) seems to have attacked Jerusalem twice, once in 701, near the beginning of his reign, and again in 688, somewhat closer to its end. The details of these two invasions, it appears, have become somewhat entangled within the three biblical accounts (Second Kings 18—19; Second Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36—37), the evidence in Josephus (Antiquities 9—10), and Sennacherib’s own record on the “Taylor Prism.” Historians speak with proper caution on this matter, however, and the hypothesis of a double invasion is far from certain. (Indeed, even the biblical dating of Hezekiah’s accession to the throne is troublesome [18:1]; few historical difficulties in the biblical text have proved so tangled and intractable.)

Certainly there was at least one Assyrian siege set around Jerusalem—it was impossible to take this elevated city without the effort of a siege. In addition to the biblical testimony on this point, we have the inscription of Sennacherib on the “Taylor Prism” in the British Museum: “But as for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not bow down in submission . . . I shut him up like a bird in a cage in Jerusalem, his capital city. I put guards around it and turned back to his ruin anyone who exited the city gate.”

The besieging general, Rabshakeh (if this was a personal name and not a military rank), taunted Hezekiah (18:28-35), who responded by praying in the Temple (verses 1,14). In this respect, it is instructive to contrast Hezekiah to Saul at an earlier period; faced with a nearly impossible military crisis, Saul panicked, but Hezekiah prayed. The words of his prayer are preserved (verses 5-19).

The Prophet Isaiah knows, apparently from the Lord, that the king has been praying, and he responds with a prophecy that encourages Hezekiah to hold fast and continue to trust in divine guidance and help (verses 20-34). This prophecy makes explicit reference to the Lord’s covenant with David. That is to say, the present chapter ties the outcome of this siege to an abiding concern of the biblical author, the inviolability of the Lord’s covenant with the Davidic house. As in those dire days when, for six years, Athaliah usurped the Davidic throne, so in the present threatening situation God remains faithful to His oath to David. Trust in God is not an abstract sense that “things will turn out all right.” It is related to the Lord’s specific promises contained in a covenant form.

The reference to “the angel of the Lord,” who slew the besieging Assyrian army, is theological. Exactly how the angel accomplished this is not specified.

The context of the besiegers’ withdrawal, furthermore, is the recent insurrection of Tirhakah back in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Sennacherib is slain in the insurrection and succeeded by his son Esarhaddon (680-669).

Tuesday, August 21

Second Kings 20: This chapter includes three parts: Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery (verses 1-11), the delegation from Babylon (verses 12-19), and the final assessment of his reign (verses 20-21). It is difficult to date the first two of these components, notwithstanding the specific reference to “fifteen years” in verse 6. Since that same verse seems to presuppose an Assyrian threat, the reader wonders how Hezekiah’s sickness is chronologically related to the events of the previous chapter. None of this is clear.

Isaiah, consulted about the king’s sickness, apodictically foretells his death (verse 1). Like Jonah’s to Nineveh, Isaiah’s prophecy to Hezekiah is unconditional: “you shall die, you shall not recover.” Yet, as the event shows, this prophecy of Isaiah, like that of Jonah, is reversed. Apparently bothered by this paradox, Josephus (Antiquities 10.2.1) omits Isaiah’s first prophecy and narrates only the second, that in verses 5-7).

With respect to Hezekiah’s prayer (verse 3), we observe four things about the king: First, he walked in God’s presence, like such men as Enoch (Genesis 5:21), Noah (6:9), Abraham and Isaac (48:15), and, of course, David (First Kings 3:6). Second, Hezekiah has walked in “fidelity”—’emeth; that is to say, he has imitated the Lord’s own fidelity. Third, he has walked with his “whole heart”—leb shalem; his internal thought and resolve has had both integrity and proper direction. Fourth, he has done that which is “good”; he has endeavored to follow what God Himself considers to be “good.”

With respect to the medical remedy prescribed by Isaiah, the application of a fig poultice to drain ulcers is mentioned by Pliny (Natural History 22.7) and by two much earlier (second millennium before Christ) Ugaritic texts about veterinary practice.

Since Isaiah has now contradicted his earlier prophecy about Hezekiah’s death, we should probably not be too hard on the king for asking for an ’oth, a confirmatory sign (verses 8-11). We recall identical requests from Gideon and Joshua.

The movement of the sun’s shadow has to do with its progression on a set of stairs adjacent to the royal palace; a person could tell the time by the position of the sun’s shadow moving up the stairs. In the execution of the “sign,” the shadow moves backwards. The king, understandably, finds the phenomenon convincing.

In the eastern half of the Fertile Crescent, during this period, the little kingdom of Babylon, still a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire, is beginning to test the latter’s strength—finding it increasingly less impressive! Within a century, Babylon will make its move, finally vanquishing Nineveh in 609. In the present text, Hezekiah receives a “friendly” delegation from Babylon, not suspecting its full political significance. Unwisely, he displays signs of his kingdom’s prosperity to the delegation. The Prophet Isaiah, who sees reality far into the future, mentions—“Hear the Word of the Lord!”—the danger incurred by the king’s imprudence (verses 16-18). When sixth century editors put the finishing touches on the Book of Isaiah, they were much impressed with his ability to discern events so far in the future, convinced that they were witnessing, in their own times, the historical developments foretold by him.

Wednesday, August 22

Second Kings 21: Manasseh (687-642) and Amon (642-640), the two kings of Judah separating Hezekiah and Josiah, make no positive contribution to the spiritual health of the realm. Their careers are contained in this single and uninspiring chapter.

The infidelities of Manasseh stand in vivid contrast with the religious reforms of his father. In addition to the reintroduction of Phoenician Baalism—including child sacrifice (verse 6)—Manasseh brings in Assyrian astral worship (verse 5). In addition, fortune telling becomes prevalent.

There was a great deal of violence; Manasseh “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another” (verse 16). Josephus must have had this text in mind when he wrote that Manasseh “barbarously slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews; nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them, till Jerusalem overflowed with blood” (Antiquities. 10.3.1).

The most notable of the prophets murdered by Manasseh was the great Isaiah. According to an account recorded in the apocryphal story, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, Manasseh caused the prophet to be sawn in two. A passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it mentions this detail, is often thought to refer to the era of Manasseh: “Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword” (11:36–37).

The Bible-reader is stunned by this massive apostasy within a single generation. What can account for so thorough and swift a fall from grace? It is likely that it should be ascribed to several causes, but I suggest that among those causes should be counted a certain erroneous and unwarranted sense of security, nearly tantamount to superstition and magic. When Manasseh was but a child, Jerusalem had been miraculously delivered from Sennacherib’s siege. That deliverance, which had arrived as though out of nowhere, gave rise in many minds to the persuasion that Jerusalem was invincible and would never fall to the enemy. Once saved, Jerusalem would always be saved.

The Chronicler gives more qualified account of Manasseh. According to this source, the king had a conversion in his later years, after the Assyrians took him captive and imprisoned him for a while (Second Chronicles 33:11-17). This account is strengthened by an Assyrian source called The Prism of Esarhaddon. According to this archival document, the new emperor, Esarhaddon (680–669), compelled the kings in the western part of the Assyrian Empire to come to the capital of Assyria to render their obeisance. The Prism names all these kings, among whom was Me-na-si-i Ia-ú-di, Manasseh of Judah.

In 640 Manasseh’s son, Amon, is slain in revolt after a very brief reign.

Thursday, August 23

Psalm 133 (Greek and Latin 132): Since there is already a substantial comment on King Josiah in today’s reading in The Saint James Daily Devotional Guide, our comments here will turn to one of the psalms assigned for today.

Psalm 133 is arguably among the loveliest of the small compositions in Holy Scripture: “Behold how good and delightful a thing, for brothers to abide as one; like balsam on the head, descending down on the beard, the beard of Aaron, descending to the hem of his robe; like the dew of Hermon, descending on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord decreed blessing, life for evermore.”

My translation here preserves a delicate but structurally important feature of both the Hebrew and the canonical Greek texts; namely, the psalm has only one finite verb, and it is found in the final line: “decreed” (eneteilato, tsivvah). The blessing in this psalm is a matter of God’s command and ordinance.

Now the blessing (evlogian, berakah) decreed of the Lord is everlasting life (zoen heos tou aionos, haiim ‘ad ha‘olam), and He decreed it in the holy mountains of Zion. This is Jerusalem, which appears in the final chapters of Revelation as the home of those brothers who abide as one. This is the ultimate meaning of “good and delightful.” It is eternal life.

The place of the Lord’s decree, “there,” is accented in both the Greek (ekei) and the Hebrew (sham). The blessing of this psalm is not some sort of general benediction poured out at random; it is specified, rather, with respect to place. It is defined and fixed in the institutions of the holy city of Jerusalem, especially in the priesthood, most particularly the high priesthood of Aaron. That is to say, the blessing decreed by the Lord is related to the consecration of that priesthood by which the people of God is defined as a priestly people and holy nation.

The emphasized “there” of the last verse stands in structural parallel and contrast with the earlier sense of “here” conveyed by the “behold” (idou, hinneh), with which the psalm begins. The poem commences, then, with the atmosphere and feeling of presence. Accordingly, there are no verbal sentences; the action in these early verses is entirely conveyed, as in both the Hebrew and Greek, by an infinitive, “to abide,” and the threefold repetition of a single participle, “descending.”

Moreover, this steady descent is described so as to suggest the slow flowing down of a consecratory blessing, and the same words for “descending” are used for both the priestly oil and the dew of Hermon in both the Greek (katabainon) and the Hebrew (yored). This sustained blessing is also conveyed by the advancing flow of the ointment, poured out in consecration on the high priest’s head, then oozing down to saturate his priestly beard, before flowing onto the hem of his priestly vestment. The “oil” of the Hebrew (shemen) is enriched and sweetened to “balsam” (myron) in the Greek text.

The high priest’s beard is mentioned twice in connection with this bountiful anointing, portraying the accumulated saturation of the blessing into this supreme symbol of his manhood. (Indeed, Holy Scripture is very strict on the point. The priest may not shave his beard, and the man who can’t grow a beard cannot be a priest.)

Beneath the beard of the high priest there hangs from his neck a pectoral of stones on which are engraved the names of Israel’s twelve tribes. When he comes to appear before the Lord, Aaron thus bears all of Israel upon his breast, directly in the path of the descending ointment of his sacerdotal consecration. The whole People of God is rendered holy in his priesthood. The oneness celebrated in this psalm is the unity of God’s people gathered in worship with their priest.

This pervasive saturation is high and exotic poetry, of course. Indeed, the picture of the heavy dew descending all the way from Mount Hermon, up in Syria, down to Jerusalem in Judah can only be introduced in a poetic context already conditioned by the psalm’s earlier and more plausible images.

The priesthood of Aaron is, moreover, the ministry preparatory to the definitive priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is He who ever lives to make intercession for us (cf. Heb. 7:25). “For brothers to abide as one” is the blessing given to the Church, described in St. Paul’s epistles as the “body of Christ” and in St. John’s Gospel as the vine with its branches. Our unity is in Christ, and more specifically in that unchangeable priesthood by which He ministers in heaven on our behalf, the one mediator between God and man. There the Lord decreed blessing.

Friday, August 24

Second Chronicles 23: Although repentance is profitable to the soul, Holy Scripture does not regard it as sufficient to undo the historical effects of sin. That is to say, by repentance I can change the course of my life—and my eternal destiny—but the bad things I have done, and the good things left undone, will still continue to run on their own. My repentance will not undo them as actions in history. Such is the practical meaning, I take it, of the adage, factum non fit non factum—”a thing done cannot become a thing not done.” It can be repented of, it can be forgiven, but it cannot be undone.

This truth about repentance was made clear at the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll in 622. When this document caused Josiah and his friends to realize how far Judah had wandered into sin, they immediately repented. The prophetess Huldah, consulted on this matter, assured them that the Lord accepted their repentance, but she also warned that their repentance would not avert the historical effects of so much sin. The accumulated transgressions of numerous generations would still bring about the destruction of the nation. Part of Josiah’s repentance was an acceptance of the divine judgment on the nation.

Indeed, I believe an integral component of repentance is the grace to leave in God’s provident hands the historical judgment of the manifold evil effects of our sins. We repentant sinners make such amends as we can (cf. Luke 19:8), but none of us can even know—much less avert—all the evil consequences our sins have unleashed in history. These things have already taken on a dynamism of their own, and God will deal with them according to His own wise judgment.

As I mentioned, this truth about repentance pertains, not only to the bad things we have done, but also to the required good things we have failed to do. Only in our later years—long after we made the major decisions that governed our lives—do some of us come to realize how many possibilities we have squandered and how few duties we have fulfilled. But now it is too late: our education is long over, our children have already been raised, further opportunities are few, and our neglected friends lie cold in the tomb.

We find ourselves unable to undo any of it. We weep, with Joel, for “the years the locust hath consumed, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm.” We are obliged simply to accept the judgment of God, following the insight of the Psalmist: iudicia Domini vera, iustificata in semetipsa—”the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”

Repentance, then, as a turning from sin to God, involves more than a release from personal guilt. It means, also, handing over to the Lord’s judgment and providential care the countless historical effects of our myriad failures. That is to say, repentance places not only our individual lives but also our larger destiny—the myriad links that join us to the rest of mankind—under God’s sovereign governance of history. Repentance makes us participes rei, sharers of a thing vastly larger than ourselves.

Josiah’s death at Megiddo in 609, a bare thirteen years after the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll, was the beginning of all the punishments Judah would undergo as the binding historical legacy of its many infidelities. Jeremiah saw it and wept.