Friday, May 23
Ezekiel 34: Ezekiel knows that the recent disaster at Jerusalem and its dire consequences, such as the scattering of God’s people, were in large measure the fault of those appointed to care for them: the royal house and the government, the priesthood, the teachers. All of these were Israel’s shepherds, commissioned by God to tend, govern, and feed the sheep. Not only did they fail to do so, but also they used their relationship to God’s people in order to serve themselves.
Thus, unfed and without guidance, the flock had “been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” God Himself, however, will come to shepherd them, and He will do so through His Anointed One—the new David—who will inherit the promises made to his ancient forebear (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89 ). This imagery and its promise will in due course be taken up by that new David who, in John 10, describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.
Ezekiel then (verses 17-22) criticizes some of the sheep themselves, who have exploited and ill-treated one another. God will judge them, not by classes, but as individuals (“sheep by sheep”) responsible for their decisions and their behavior.
The final section of this chapter (verses 25-30) describes the coming care of the Good Shepherd in terms reminiscent of paradise (compare Psalm 72 ).
1 Samuel 14:24-52: King Saul, rising to a manic state, gives an imprudent order, followed by the enforcement of a rash oath: Until the battle is over, no soldier was to eat, under penalty of death (verse 24). By way of explaining Saul’s flight from rationality here, Josephus remarked, “reason runs out on the lucky” (Antiquities 6.6.3).
When Jonathan, ignorant of the oath, violates his father’s injunction and was taken to task by a fellow soldier, he treats the matter with nonchalance, not to say contempt. In the end, the army defends him against his irrational father.
In this chapter the true and effective leadership has clearly passed from Saul to Jonathan, who wins the loyalty of the army. This same leadership and popularity are soon to pass to David.
For the nonce, however, Saul remains king and continues victorious (verses 46-48). The chapter closes with summary comments about his family (verses 49), especially introducing Abner and Saul’s two daughters, who will be important when David comes on the scene. The final verse, about military recruitment, opens yet another door, through which David soon will come on stage (verse 52).
Saturday, May 24
Ezekiel 35: In this chapter we find expressed toward the Edomites, symbolized in Mount Seir, that same spirit of bitter condemnation that inspired the entire prophecy of Obadiah and the last several verses of Psalm 137 (136).
The material here expands on ideas found in a seminal form in Ezekiel 25:12-14. Edom has assisted and cheered on the Babylonians in their wanton destruction of the temple (cf. 1 Esdras 4:45). Ezekiel is our witness that the Edomites hoped to annex territory left open by the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (verse 10), but they will not do so, he tells us, because God has other plans for that land. Those plans of God form the substance of the next chapter.
The Edomites in the Bible comprised what we may call . . . well, a special case. Israel did not like them very much. Indeed, the Lord had to command Israel not to despise the Edomites (Deuteronomy 23:7), a thing they were prompted to do, perhaps, on the excuse that the Lord Himself was said to hate Esau, the father of the Edomites (Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:13). Truth to tell, the Edomites were not easy to love. They had obstructed Israel’s path from Egypt during the days of Moses (Numbers 20:21). They were known to be without pity (Amos 1:11) and engaged in international slave trade (1:6,9). For Ezekiel, as for Obadiah, however, the major sin was their attempt to exploit Babylon’s destruction of Judah.
1 Samuel 15:1-35: In the past the Lord had used the ministry of prophetic figures to address the arrogance and hard hearts of rulers. Broadly considered, the theme was discernible in the instances of Abraham (Genesis 20:1-7; Psalms 104:14-15), Balaam (Numbers 22—24), and especially Moses. Indeed, Moses became, in this respect, the very type of the future prophetic vocation.
In Samuel’s confrontation with Saul, however, this theme assumes its full form. If pagan kings were not spared prophetic censure, Israel’s own kings how much less! The confrontation we see in the present chapter will be replayed in the instances of Nathan with David, Elijah with Ahab, Isaiah with Ahaz, Jeremiah with Zedekiah, John the Baptist with Antipas, and St. Paul with Agrippa. In short, this story chiefly embodies a prophetic concern: the proper service of the prophetic vocation to the political order.
In outlining this pattern, the present story also pronounces on an important aspect of political power: its need to be restrained. Chiefly by describing the social evils inflicted by unwise and evil kings, Holy Scripture seems everywhere to be at pains to insist that the political good of a society is of limited worth and must in no case be taken as an ultimate good. Except when it speaks of the eschatological Messianic reign, the Bible is ever restrained in its enthusiasm for political power; the biblical authors are normally more Whig than Tory.
This story of Saul’s rejection contains similarities to:
First, the rejection of Eli’s dynasty in 13:7-15: Each case involved a cultic violation, both happened in Gilgal, and both included a confrontation by Samuel.
Second, other biblical pronouncements of the Lord’s preference for obedience over sacrifice (Isaiah 1:10-11; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Psalms 49:9; 50:18; Mark 12:28-34).
Sunday, May 25
Ezekiel 36: As the previous oracle was addressed to Mount Seir in Edom, so this one (verses 1-15) is addressed to the mountains of Israel. It condemns all the nations that have set themselves against God’s people, but special attention is given, once again, to the Edomites (verse 5).
In verse 8 Ezekiel begins a series of several prophecies of the Israelites’ return to their homes. Whereas in Chapter 6 he had infallibly foretold to these same mountains the many sufferings that have since ensued, he now tells them, again infallibly, of the joys that lie ahead.
And why should God perform these mercies, in view of the fact that Israel has deserved all that it has suffered (verses 16-20)? Because of His own gracious election (verses 21-38). God will pour out all these new blessings on His people in order to testify to the gratuity and steadfastness of His choice. God will be faithful, even though Israel has not been faithful.
The most famous lines of this section are in verses 26-28, repetitious of 11:19-20 and reminiscent of Jeremiah 31:31-34. God will restore Israel, not because of the merits of Israel, but to vindicate His covenant fidelity. The gift of cleansing and a new heart is entirely God’s, but it will not be given except in the context of repentance (verse 31).
1 Samuel 16:1-23: Whereas chapter 15 ended in Samuel’s mourning for Saul, at the beginning of the present chapter the Lord tells him it is time to stop mourning and so something positive about the situation. The time has come to disregard Saul who belongs—already!—to the past. Samuel must forget those things that are behind and reach forward to those things that are ahead.
Right from the beginning of David’s rise, Holy Scripture insists that the process of that rise cannot be understood by external observation; considerations of flesh and blood do not explain it. The meaning of it eludes the scrutiny of the “objective historian,” who will see in it only a political narrative. Such a one will comment on the various political forces, including David’s own ambition, which will bring the son of Jesse to the throne. All such considerations, however, fail to cover the case, says Holy Scripture.
Consequently, Samuel is cautioned not to regard the matter with solely human eyes, because “God does not see as man sees.” David will become king because God wants him to be king. Whereas Saul was chosen, in part, because he looked like a king (9:2; 10:23), such considerations must now be excluded from the process (verse 7).
Monday, May 26
Ezekiel 37: We come now to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, unarguably the best known part of this book. It consists of a Spirit-given experience (verses 1-10), followed by an interpretation (verses 11-14). In its immediate historical sense, the valley of the dry bones represents Israel after Jerusalem’s destruction in 586.
As a prophecy to be fulfilled in the fullness of time, it refers to the resurrection of the dead, of which the principle and first-fruit is the Resurrection of Christ. (Hence it is most appropriate for us to be reading this text on the eve of Ascension Thursday, the feast celebrating the heavenly exaltation of Christ’s risen flesh.)
In this vision the dynamic principle in the resurrection of the dead is the same Spirit who brought the prophet to the valley (verse 1).
The reader should bear in mind that, all through this chapter, there is a single Hebrew word (ruah) translated in different ways (“Spirit,” “breath,” “wind”), simply because no one English word expresses the fullness of its meaning (Cf. also Genesis 1:2).
This section is followed by another prophetic pantomime (verses 15-17), accompanied by an interpretation (verses 18-23), according to which all of God’s people will be rejoined, with the new David to shepherd them (verses 24-28).
1 Samuel 17:1-58: Several things are notable about the fight between David and Goliath:
First, the attention given to single-handed combat, a feature this story has in common with so many battle scenes in Homer. Because so much of ancient warfare was hand-to-hand, stories of individual heroism tended to dominate ancient epic accounts of battle. Although thousands of men fought on both sides of the Trojan War, for instance, the interest of the poet was largely directed to just a few outstanding warriors on each side, whose battles he describes in dramatic detail. In this respect the present chapter of 1 Samuel almost reads like a page of Homer.
Second, the significance of such battles indicated through the dialogue in which the battles were set. Thus, for instance, the significance of the fight between Hector and Patroclus is to be found in the brief speeches that each man gives in preparation for the encounter. The same is to be said for the final fight between Achilles and Hector.
We find much the same thing here in 1 Samuel. The significance—in this case, the theological significance—of the fight between David and Goliath is to be found in the dialogues and speeches of this chapter: Goliath’s challenge, the announcement by Saul’s spokesman, David’s dialogue with his brothers and the other soldiers, the conversation between David and Saul, the challenges hurled at one another by Goliath and David, and the dialogue of Saul with Abner. David’s pre-battle declarations carry the theological weight of the narrative.
Third, the great attention to detail in the description on the giant and his armor (verses 4-7). Goliath is definitely the strong man fully armed. With respect to the prophetic mystery of the battle with Goliath, our Teacher commented, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils” (Luke 11:20-22). In this text, Jesus discloses the deeper identity of Goliath and David.
Fourth, Israel’s plight when David arrives at the battlefield. The tallest man in the army, King Saul, is terrified of the apparently taller Philistine (6’9” in the Greek, 9’9” in the Hebrew). Since his recent emotional collapse, His Majesty is way off his stride. Saul is so chowder-headed that he does not even recognize David, who has already been identified as his armor bearer. Even at the end of the chapter, when the immediate crisis has passed, Saul has no idea who David’s father is, even though he had a letter from that father in the previous chapter (16:19). The king’s weakness and confusion have infected the whole army, as David discovers on his arrival at camp.
Fifth, Goliath’s “challenge” or “reproach” to Israel: the verb haraph, found five times in this chapter (verses 10,25,26,36,45), bears both meanings. It conveys insult, not only to Israel’s army, but also to Israel’s God.
We gain some sense of the verb’s meaning in this chapter by consulting the Psalms: “My enemies reproach me [herpuni], / While they say to me all day long, / ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalms 42:10). Again, “My dishonor is continually before me, / And the shame of my face has covered me, / Because of the voice of him who reproaches (mehareph) and reviles” (4:15-16).
Recognizing the blasphemy of Goliath, David could well have prayed on this occasion, “O God, how long will the adversary reproach [yehareph]? / Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?” (74:10; cf. 55:13; 74:18; 79:12; 89:53; 89:52 (twice); 102:9).
Sixth, the question to be settled by this battle; it is really about Israel’s “living God” and the idol of the Philistines. That is to say, this is a repeat of the battle earlier waged in Dagon’s temple. When the mortally wounded Goliath falls on his face, he assumes the posture in which Dagon was found before the Ark (5:3).
Tuesday, May 27
Ezekiel 38: In the composition of the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 38-39 are especially striking and, at first sight, incongruous. Nonetheless, they form an intentional link between the promises in Chapter 37 and the prophecies of God’s final temple in Chapters 40-48.
Chapters 38-39 describe a terrible invasion from the north, led by a commander of an international army (verses 2-6,15), named Gog. This invasion is not imminent; it will come “in the latter years” (38:8), a reference to the indefinite future (indefinite because only God knows the future) that may be described as the “last times.” Gog represents the final great enemy of God’s people, and his invasion will be the last great attack against God’s kingdom.
The name “Gog” would have surprised none of Ezekiel’s contemporaries, for it was the name of a person from the somewhat recent past and still well known in the sixth century before Christ. The Hebrew name Gog corresponds to the Assyrian Gugu and the Greek Gyges. He was a famous seventh century king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who had died in 648. Accounts of the original Gog are found in Assyrian annals and the History of Herodotus. (If Ezekiel were writing today, he might use, for the same purpose, “Bismarck” or “Garibaldi.”) The name is not especially important for the identification of the invader; like all the other names in this chapter, it is symbolic of evil realities much larger and more menacing than their historical references.
Thus understood, Gog and his forces will reappear in Revelation 20. (“Magog,” by the way, appears to be an abbreviation of the Hebrew min-Gog, “from Gog.” In the Book of Revelation he is a derived ally of Gog.) The most important thing to know about Gog is that God’s people do not need to fear him, for his doom has already been determined.
1 Samuel 18:1-30: The chief motif of chapter 18 is Saul’s growing suspicion and distrust of David, which is elaborated in the context of Saul’s family. Both his son, Jonathan, and his daughter, Michal, quickly become fond of David.
With respect to Saul’s daughter, Michal, the king sees a way to use her affection for David as a means to dispose of him: He offers the girl in marriage, but requires his planned son-in-law to pay one hundred Philistine foreskins as a bridal price. Saul presumes that this requirement—which includes a bit of coarse ethnic humor about Philistine genitalia—will enrage the Philistines enough to finish David off. In the Greek version, David simply produces the one hundred foreskins, but the Hebrew text is more interesting and ironical: David decides to show Saul a thing or two by producing—and counting out!—two hundred Philistine foreskins!
With respect to Saul’s son, Jonathan, the king observes with distress that he has become deeply attached to David, much impressed with the latter’s handling of Goliath. David’s abrupt intervention on the battlefield, at the hour when “Saul and all Israel . . . were dismayed and greatly afraid,” seized the attention of Jonathan. His eyes fixed on this newcomer walking calmly back into the camp, his one hand gripping the giant’s sword and his other swinging the giant’s severed head.
Wednesday, May 28
Ezekiel 39: This continuation of the previous chapter uses the mystic number seven (the inference reached by the addition of the divine number three and the human number four [and if you multiply them, you arrive at the other mystic number, twelve]) to designate the number of years that the burning of the discarded weapons will supply the need for fuel. Seven, too, will be the number of months required to bury all the dead from Gog’s great army.
In this section, verses 11-16, we see Ezekiel’s priestly preoccupation with ritual purity (cf. Numbers 5:2; 19:16; 35:33f). So great will be the battle’s carnage that the beasts and carrion birds will be glutted with the corpses (verses 17-20; cf. Revelation 19:17-21). The chapter ends with a summary of God’s restoration of Israel, which brings this third part of Ezekiel to a close.
1 Samuel 19:1-24: Jonathan, following a promise to David, persuades his father to call off the execution of his friend. David is so placed that he can hear the conversation and be reassured. This intervention is successful, and David returns to court. This arrangement, nonetheless, is not permanent, because David’s continued military success plunges Saul once more into a deep and murderous madness (verses 8-10).
Michal, learning of Saul’s scheme to kill her husband the next morning, plots his escape during the night. Her ruse includes placing a statue of a household god in David’s bed and pretending he is sick. Meanwhile, David makes good his getaway.
This story reminds the reader of Rachel, who, like Michal, also employed the services of a household god to deceive her own father, Laban (Genesis 31:19,34-35). The similarity between the two cases, moreover, prompts the reader to recall that Laban, like Saul, meanly used his two daughters to exploit Jacob; both Laban and Saul delayed handing over the desired daughters and increased the price for them.
Samuel, receiving David at his home in Ramah, protects him from Saul and the agents Saul sends to capture the fugitive.
This episode is elaborately told. Three delegations are dispatched. At each instance, Samuel and his prophetic followers are raised to ecstatic experience, causing a negative and debilitating reaction among those dispatched to capture David. (They become as helpless as the three delegations sent to arrest Elisha in 2 Kings 1:9-18.) Finally, Saul himself arrives, and in this case the debilitating reaction becomes extreme: Saul goes completely mad, strips off his clothes, and lies naked in the dirt.
Ascension Thursday, May 29
Ezekiel 40: These final nine chapters of Ezekiel contain his visions of the future temple, to which God’s glory will return. These visions also contain regulations by which the worship in the temple will be determined, rules with respect to the various sacrifices and ministries, ordinances about holiness, and all manner of prescription governing the priestly services of the temple.
These final chapters serve as something of a foil or counterpart to the terrible visions of Chapters 8-11, where the prophet, touring the temple under the guidance of a heavenly minister, witnessed the abominations that led to the departure of God’s glory from the holy place. Now, in these final chapters, Ezekiel is once again led by the same heavenly minister to tour the temple and to behold the return of God’s glory.
The temple herein described vastly transcends the new earthly temple that will be constructed by Zerubbabel. Indeed, this description points in prophecy to a greater reality transcending all the expectations of Israel according to the flesh. This temple is “ideal” in the sense of conforming to the heavenly model of the sanctuary seen by Moses in the Book of Exodus, and of which we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Chapter 40 begins on April 28, 573 B.C. Then begins the measuring of the new temple, following the dimensions determined by God Himself. (Following the Greek text, the reader will be spared undue confusion by omitting verse 30, which seems to represent either a later addition or a corruption of the Hebrew text.)
Acts 1:1-14: Jesus rose from the dead, not in order to return to the earth, but in order to enter “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Hebrews 9:24). His priesthood is heavenly; indeed, “if he were on earth, he would not be a priest” (8:4). His priestly service, commenced on Calvary, was perfected when, “not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, he entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:12).
The Lord’s Ascension, in short, was essential to the work of the Atonement. According to a theme developed chiefly in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God united us to Himself—made us at-one with Himself—not only by the Son’s assumption of our humanity in the Incarnation, but also by this Son’s bearing our humanity home to the Father. In Christ’s Ascension, God eradicates every vestige of our alienation from Him.
Friday, May 30
Ezekiel 41: Everything in the temple expresses the principles of mathematics. In the Bible (as in Pythagoras and Plato), numbers are sacred; they are spiritual emanations of God’s creative act, giving form, structure, and significance to the universe. Numbers are the basis of “form,” that internal principle of proportion that causes things to be what they are. And because the knowledge of anything consists in the comprehension of its form, all knowledge involves a mathematical perception, a “measure,” the perception of “limits,” which “define” things.
Even this future temple—a reflection of the heavenly sanctuary seen by Moses on Mount Sinai—now being “visited” in prophetic vision by Ezekiel, is shaped (that is, receives its form) by the principles of measurement. Because the house of God is a house of order, not chaos, it is a house structured according to the eternal principles of proportion.
Step by step, and in reverent silence, the angelic tour guide patiently lays his royal cubit stick to determine the proportions of the sacred space. The unit of measure that he employs is the royal cubit, which in modern measurement is 52.5 centimeters or 20.6692 inches.
When the heavenly minister enters the Holy of Holies to take its measure in verses 3-4, Ezekiel reverently remains outside; when that inner sanctuary has been measured, the angel gives the prophet a brief explanation.
Ezekiel also receives an explanation of the altar in verse 22. The elaborate carvings described in verses 19-26 are early proof that the Jews of that period (and for centuries to come, well into the Christian era), did not interpret the Decalogue as prohibiting works of representative art in places of worship.
1 Samuel 20:1-24: With respect to God’s purpose in the painful unfolding of the events in these chapters of Samuel, the comments of Holy Scripture are necessarily brief, modest, and occasionally indirect. The biblical writer claims no clarity of perception into the divine mind beyond the experienced conviction that the Lord of history had a decisive hand in the political development described in these pages. Things did not simply happen. They happened, rather, because they were guided by a mysterious providential impulse that nudged events along in a determined direction. At no point in the story, moreover, did this providential impulse violate or impair the free choices and decisions of those taking part in the drama.