Friday, October 26

James 1:1-11: James, in a series of apparently unsystematic exhortations, begins with patience, prompting the careful reader to recall that St. Paul, too, when he commenced his description of Christian love, began with the succinct thesis, “Love is patient”–Charitas patiens est in the Vulgate. James’ word for “patience,” hypomone–verses 3,4) will later appear when James speaks of the example of Job (5:11). He begins and ends this work, then, on the need of patience in the time of trial (verses 2,12,13,14).

The English reader, as he reads “when you fall into various trials,” may not suspect the skillful play of sounds in James’ original Greek: perasmois peripesete poikilois. In fact, James displays such verbal flourishing right from the start, going from “greetings” (verse 1) to “all joy” (verse 2)–chairein pasa charan.

The theme of rejoicing in times of trial is a common one in the New Testament (Matthew 5:10-12; Acts 5:41; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). This active attitude toward the experience of trial, as distinct from a merely passive endurance, brings about a kind of perfection, an ergon teleion (verse 4), perfection being a quality of great interest to James (verse 17,25; 3:2).

Nehemiah 13: The dedication of the wall was the occasion for some more reading from the Torah, including the prescription found in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, which excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Israel (verse 1). As long as Nehemiah was on the local scene, such exclusions were taken seriously (verses 2-3). When he left to make a brief visit back to Babylon (verse 6), however, events turned for the worse. On his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah learned all sorts of unpleasant things.

He learned, for instance, that a member of the priestly family had become the son-in-law of his old foe, Sanballat (verse 28). In former days, when Sanballat tried to impede the construction of the wall, Nehemiah had held him off. Now, nonetheless, Sanballat was suddenly inside the walls! What he had been unable to do by force of arms, he managed to accomplish by the simple means of marrying his daughter to a priest! This serious breach in Jerusalem’s spiritual wall once again put at peril Israel’s very existence as a holy nation, a people set apart.

In addition, Nehemiah discovered that the high priest himself had provided lodging within the temple for one of those who had opposed Nehemiah’s very mission (verses 4-5). Other things had gotten out of hand, as well, such as the failure to observe the Sabbath, whether by Jews themselves or by pagans who came to sell their wares in the city (verses 15-22).

Nehemiah set himself to put everything straight again (verses 7-13). The major problem, however, continued to be the disposition of the people to intermarry with non-Jews (verses 23-27), in contravention to the Torah (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Nehemiah found it a very tough job to maintain those walls!

Recalling those great efforts, Nehemiah prayed that God would not forget them, “Remember me, O Lord” became his refrain (verses 14,22,29,30).

Saturday, October 27

James 1:12-20: The blessedness of the man who endures trial is related to that man’s love for God (verse 12). Love, that is to say, is really what is on trial; it is the reason for the endurance of the trial. This love for God, the love that is tried, is a gift of the Holy Spirit: “. . . we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).

God puts His faithful ones through trial, but He does not “tempt” them in the sense of enticing them to sin (verse 13). God does not “tempt” in that sense. When man is enticed toward sin, it has to do with his own passions, his disposition to sin (verse 14). The source of this sort of temptation is internal to man; even the world and Satan cannot get at a man except through his own inner disposition. (Thus, Jesus was not “tempted” in this sense. Jesus was certainly put to the trial, and Satan used every effort to entice Him, but Jesus had no inner disposition to sin.)

Those who suffer temptation may be plagued by the thought that God has abandoned them, that He has forgotten them, that He no longer holds them in regard. To address this erroneous thought James insists that God is unchanging toward those that love Him. Unlike the lights in the heavens, the Father of these lights, their Creator (Genesis 1:13-18), does not diminish in His gifts to those who love Him. Indeed, James has already mentioned that God “gives to all liberally and without reproach” (verse 5).

This Father of lights has become our Father by begetting us in the Word (verse 18). Peter says the same, when he describes believers as “having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).

Isaiah 1: The first five chapters of this book form a sort of preface, introducing the call of the prophet in chapter 6. We note the absence of historical indicators (except for 1:1, of course) in these chapters, in striking contrast with chapters 6 and 7. The purpose of this introductory material, which was surely composed after Isaiah was called, is to provide a critical analysis of the Kingdom of Judah, in order to set that calling in the proper historical context.

The time of Isaiah, the second half of the eighth century before Christ, beginning in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), was a period of rebellion against God and infidelity to His covenant. This rebellious infidelity is illustrated in the first chapter by the collapse of national life (verses 6-9), religious apostasy (verses 10-15), and social disintegration (verses 21-23).

The book’s first verse, as is usual in the prophetic books, simply provides the time frame: the second half of the eighty-century, beginning in the last year of King Uzziah, 742 B.C.

This is a book about “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), a theme that joins all parts of the work. Indeed, the names “Jerusalem” and “Zion” occur 97 times in the Book of Isaiah, the occurrences spread pretty evenly in all parts of the work.

Sunday, October 28

James 1:21-27: James devotes this next section to the proper hearing and doing of this “implanted” Word (verse 21).

First, there are certain moral and ascetical conditions preparatory to receiving this Word. Although the inseminated ground produces fruit of itself (avtomate [see the root of "automatically"?] he ge karpophorei—Mark 4:28), this ground must be prepared to receive it. This is the burden of the Lord’s most famous parable, the story of the sower who sowed the seed on various sorts of soil, with greatly varying results.

Thus, says James, the man that would properly listen to God’s Word must be, first of all, a listener. He must be slow to speak, especially purging his heart of anger (verses 19-20) and foul thought (verse 21; cf. Sirach 5:11-13; 20:5-8). In chapters 3 and 4 James will return to this theme of tongue control.

Second, the proper moral climate for attending to God’s Word is “meekness” (praütes—verse 21), the notable quality of Jesus’ own heart (Matthew 11:29).

Third, the Word must be received in active obedience, whereby the listeners become “doers of the Word”—literally “poets of the Word” (poietai Logou—verse 22; cf. Romans 2:13). If this is not the case, they “deceive” themselves (paralogizomenoi), especially with a deception of the heart (apaton kardian—verse 26).

We appreciate James’ warning that hearing the Word of God may be an occasion of spiritual danger, particularly the peril of self-deception. The major danger faced by the Bible-reader is that of imagining himself to be a religious person (verse 26). Such a one must learn to bridle his tongue, for he may not be who he thinks he is.

It is not unlikely that James has in mind here the newly converted Bible reader who is too anxious to display his recently discovered wisdom by proclaiming it to others. What such a man must first learn to do is carry out the most basic, simplest, humblest mandates of the Gospel—working charity toward the misfortunate and purging the worldliness from his heart (verse 27).

Fourth, the study of God’s Word is the school of self-knowledge, because it serves as a mirror to the soul itself (verses 23-24). Thus, the man who studies God’s Word assiduously looks into a mirror, in which he learns his own blemishes reflected there. This will be the case, however, only if the hearer of the Word comes to it in the active obedience of faith (verse 25). He must not take leave of the Word too soon but “continue” (parameinas) in it.

Fifth, the “doer of the Word” must also be the “doer of the work” (poietes ergou—verse 25). As we shall see in the next chapter, James rejects any theory of justification that is not emphatic about the necessity of works. These works are what constitutes a man’s religion (threskia—verses 26,27).

Monday, October 29

James 2:1-13: The message of this section is straightforward and unsubtle. James points to a common trait of fallen man, the disposition to cultivate favor with the powerful over the weak, to prefer the approval of the rich to that of the poor. James begins by noting the easiest, most immediate way of distinguishing between the two—their clothing. Because the wealthier man can afford better clothes, he is better able to honor his own body, prompting others to comply with that honor. As modern men sometimes say, “Clothing makes a statement.”

For James, however, who has just mentioned that true religion consists in care for the poor and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (1:27), such deference towards the wealthy is only another form of worldliness. The New King James Version calls this vice “partiality.” The King James’ rendering “respect of persons” comes closer to the sense of the Greek prosopolempsia, literally translated in the Vulgate as personarum acceptatio, “acceptance of persons.” This word means that distinctions are made, according to which some people are treated with greater honor and respect than others.

The thing chiefly to be noted about this prosopolempsia is that God doesn’t have any (Romans 2:11), and neither should the Church. A preference for the wealthy, even with the excuse that the wealthy are in a better position to aid the work of the Church, would seem to be the very antithesis of visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unsullied by the world. As such it has no legitimate place in the social life of the Church (verses 2-3).

Indeed, in many places in Holy Scripture it appears that God, if He can be said to have a preference, prefers the poor. He is called the protector of the orphan and the defense of the widow, and even the most casual Bible-reader will observe, from time to time, that God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. In fact, God “chooses the poor” (exselexsato tous ptochous—verse 5) and makes them heirs of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20).

If his readers need any further incentive to be freed from such worldliness, James reminds them that their own oppressors come from the ranks of the rich rather than the poor (verses 6-7; Amos 8:4; Wisdom 2:10). The Christian Church, in short, must side with the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, not with the wealthy, the powerful, and the oppressors.

What, finally, is called for is the love of one’s neighbor as oneself (verse 8; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), for this is the standard by which we shall be judged (verse 12; Matthew 19:17-19).

Tuesday, October 30

James 2:14-26: This section contains James’ response to an erroneous interpretation of St. Paul. The latter apostle, in fact, seems often to have been misunderstood by some early Christians (1 Peter 3:15-16), a misfortune of which Paul himself complained (Romans 3:8). The problem of misinterpreting Paul continued, moreover, well into the next century (cf. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 3.13.1), and some believe it is still with us.

Here in James it appears that Paul was misunderstood with respect to justification through faith. Paul had by this time written Galatians. Against the Judaizers, who taught that Christians must observe all or part of the Mosaic Law, Paul’s letter to the Galatians insisted that the works of the Mosaic Law (circumcision, the dietary rules, and so forth) were not required of those who committed their lives to Christ in faith. Some of Paul’s readers exaggerated this teaching to imply a theology of justification “through faith alone”—ek pisteos monon (verse 24). According to this theory, no works of a man are necessary for his justification. All human works are superfluous for justification. James goes here into some detail to refute and condemn such a notion.

James observes, first, that a hungry man is not fed by my faith; I must actually do something to feed him. A naked person is not covered nor warmed by my faith; I must act in order to clothe him. A faith without such activity accomplishes nothing. It provides no advantage, to the needy man or to myself—”What does it profit?” (Ti to ophelos, verses 14,16), asks James.

We observe here that James does not contrast faith with works. He contrasts, rather, a living, profitable faith with an empty, dead faith. For James, then living faith is giving and not merely receiving, active and not solely passive. A faith that is not “lived” is not real faith; it is, at best, a religious preference, perhaps only a faint religious opinion. Salvific faith is a matter, says James, of faith and works.

The demons, after all, who are fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6), can be said to have faith, inasmuch as they believe in the oneness of God. Such “faith,” however, is of no avail to them (verse 19). A devil that believes in God is no better off than an atheist who doesn’t, and a person who believes but doesn’t act on that belief has no advantage over either. “Faith alone” of this sort is the lot of the damned.

James next turns to Holy Scripture for examples of saints justified by their works. The first is Abraham, whom Paul himself had invoked in the Epistle to the Galatians (chapters 3-4). Although Abraham, living earlier than Moses, had not observed the works of the Mosaic Law (and, consequently, was justified apart from those works), he never imagined himself exempt from the obligation of “works,” in the sense of obedience to God’s will and command.

James’s second example is Rahab, the Canaanite woman that received and protected the two spies sent by Joshua. She, too, had faith (Joshua 2:11), but she actually did something with it. She acted on it. Her faith was alive, so it was able to save the two spies. By her deeds, therefore, as much as her faith, Rahab and her household were “saved” (Joshua 6:22-25).

Wednesday, October 31

James 3:1-12: James begins by warning of the more severe judgment that awaits teachers, who must answer, not only for their own offenses, but also for the conduct of those badly influenced by their teaching. This more severe judgment, warns James, will make a person cautious about becoming a teacher (verse 1; Matthew 5:19; 23:7-8).

This attention to teaching—since teaching involves speech—prompts James to turn his concern to the moral life of the tongue. He had earlier introduced this theme by the exhortation, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (1:19).

Although each of us fails in many ways, says, James, the description “perfect man” may be ascribed to someone who places adequate moral restraint on his tongue (verse 2). In elaborating this theme, of course, James is heir to the Bible’s Wisdom literature (cf. Proverbs 15:1-4,7,23,26,28; Sirach 5:11—6:1; 28:13-26).

To illustrate his point about the moral control of the tongue, James provides a series of analogies to the tongue—small objects of either great import or capable of potentially massive harm: a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, the small flame that causes a great conflagration (verses 3-6). A seemingly small thing is capable of things vastly greater than itself. So is it with the tongue. By its proper mastery the entire moral life is brought under discipline.

Left unrestrained, however, the tongue is able to create great spiritual harm, inflaming “the course of nature,” becoming thereby “the sum total of evil” (ho kosmos tes adikias). Wild animals, James continues, are easier to tame than the tongue, which is an “uncontrolled evil, full of death-bearing poison” (verses 7-8).

An example of such poison is the curse that the tongue directs to human beings made in God’s likeness, the same tongue that blesses God Himself (verse 9). How can this be? How can good and evil proceed from a common source?

James’ rhetorical style here is subtler than at first it seems. In his explicit pronouncements he appears to despair of a man’s controlling his tongue: “no man can tame the tongue.” This would almost seem to be his thesis. Yet, despair on this point is the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, James’ analogies convey the opposite impression, and it is this impression that he leaves with the reader. After all we do manage to master the horse by means of the bit. We are able to govern ships by means of the rudder, and a flame, while it is yet small, can normally be controlled. Even as his sentences seem to despair of the project, then, James’ metaphors indicate that this moral endeavor is, in fact, quite manageable.

Thursday, November 1

Isaiah 6: The prophet, having arranged several of his oracles as a preface, to set the historical and religious context for his call to prophesy (chapters 1-5), now comes to the call itself. In this account the prophet hints at a paradigm for the entire religious reform of his own times, inasmuch as the revelation of God’s “triple” holiness brings him to a sense of his sinfulness and to a repentant obedience to the Lord’s summons.

Two kings are contrasted, the dying Uzziah and “the Lord, high and lifted up.” Corresponding to this contrast, two kinds of people are implied. There are those that place their trust in earthly monarchs, such as Uzziah, who reigned for more than half a century in Judah, or, in context, Tiglath Pileser III, who began his reign over Assyria and most of the Fertile Crescent three years earlier, in 745. In contrast to these worldlings, there are those that place not their trust in men, but in the Lord.

Uzziah was exactly the kind of monarch desired by the worldly. In every way by which the world assesses the success of a king, Uzziah was successful. Isaiah, however, speaks only of his death, and this twice (here and in 14:28). For the prophet the only thing finally significant about Uzziah was that he died. Thus, he represents the dead and decaying order constructed on rebellion against God.

The Lord is “high and lifted up” (here and in 57:15), the same expression that will describe God’s Servant (52:13).

He is manifest in His Temple, the locus of sacrifice, the place where heaven and earth are joined. About Him are the Seraphim, “the fiery ones,” each with six flame-like wings. They cover their eyes, not their ears, for they remain attentive to do God’s bidding. Before Him they cover their feet in humility, as though waiting for Him to dispatch them to do His will (verse 2). Meanwhile they chant to one another, in antiphonal responses, announcing the holiness and glory of God. Holiness is God’s glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God’s holiness revealed.

The revelation of God’s holiness in this vision of His glory causes Isaiah great consternation and fear. It is not simply the disquietude of the creature before the Creator, but the terror of the sinner in the presence of the All Pure. Isaiah now knows himself to be contaminated (verse 5; cf. Job 42:5-6; Luke 5: 8). He is “undone,” reduced to silence, recognizing himself at one with the world of sinners. He is part of a society that has polluted language at its source (cf. Psalms 12 [11]: 1-4). His own lips are unclean, unworthy to participate in the seraphic hymn to God’s holiness. He is unable to do more than confess his vileness before the God to whom he will henceforth refer as “the Holy One of Israel.”

Because man cannot cleanse himself, a Seraph is dispatched to purge the prophet’s lips with a burning coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice (verse 6). This coal from the altar represents the purging power of that Sacrifice, of which all the biblical sacrifices are types and preparations, that Sacrifice that takes away the sins of humanity. This coal is so hot that even the Seraph, the “fiery one,” must handle it with tongs. The fire itself, burning perpetually (Leviticus 6:12-13), represents the divine holiness (Exodus 3:2-6; 19:18-25).

Isaiah’s sins are purged away by the sacrificial fire (verse 7). That is to say, his confession leads immediately to his purging, and this purging leads immediately to his calling as a prophet. The chapter’s remaining verses concern the conditions and purpose of Isaiah’s ministry.

If we took too literally and simply the Lord’s instructions to Isaiah (verses 9-10), we might imagine that the prophet was to speak in very obscure words, impossible to understand. In fact, however, his contemporaries thought his words so simple that they amounted to baby talk (28:9-10). And this is precisely the point. Isaiah is to speak with such utter clarity as to leave his hearers without excuse. Hardness of heart will be the only explanation of their failure to understand. His words will harden their hearts, in the same sense that the heart of Pharaoh was hardened by the repeated divine signs that Moses worked in his presence.

Friday, November 2

James 3:13—4:7: Perhaps following up his comment about the dangers of teaching (verse 1), James goes on to contrast two kinds of wisdom, one demonic and the other godly. These two kinds of wisdom are distinguishable in three ways.

First, they may be distinguished by their immediate fruits. Like faith, says James, wisdom is manifest in its works. Demonic wisdom is marked by bitter envy (zelon pikron) and contention in the heart (eritheian en te kardia), boasting, and lying against the truth (verse 14). Godly wisdom, on the other hand, is manifest in “good conduct and works in the meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). That is to say, a truly wise man is a humble man, readily distinguished from the arrogant, contentious blusterer who is full of himself. Both the Gospels (Matthew 5:5; 11:29) and the Epistles (2 Corinthians 10:1; Galatians 5:23) commend the spirit of meekness. Not all meek people are wise, but all wise people are meek.

A second difference between the two kinds of wisdom is found in their differing origins. Evil wisdom is earthly, animal, and diabolical (verse 16). It is the wisdom of death. It comes from below, not from above. Godly wisdom is “from above” (anothen—verses 15,17).

Third, these two types of wisdom are distinguished by where they lead. The wisdom of envy and strife leads to confusion and “every evil work” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:20). Godly wisdom, however, leads to purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, sincerity, and a reluctance to pass judgment (verse 17). We recognize here some of St. Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23).

James’ teaching on wisdom, then, is of a piece with his teaching on faith. If a person claims to have faith, let him show his works. If someone claims to be wise, let us see his works. The truth is always in the deeds, not the talk.

Having spoken of the great evils that come by an undisciplined tongue (3:2-12) and having listed the contentions characteristic of demonic wisdom (3:13-16), James begins the next chapter by speaking of those strifes that destroy peace of soul (4:1-6).