Friday, October 24

Nehemiah 11: We have already seen the theological significance of the sort of census data that we have in this chapter. The present list comprises the names of those within the walls that have been constructed. They are the separated people, the “insiders,” symbolic of the inner identity of the holy nation.

All through these two books we have watched the outsiders trying to get inside–or at least to have access to the inside–exercising a sustained harassment of those inside. We saw the response of Zerubbabel, for instance, to the suggestion, in Ezra 4:1-3, that there be no distinction between insider and outsider, because Israel’s pre-captivity history had already taught him the dangers of not insisting on that distinction. The outsiders, thus rebuffed, have spent the rest of these two books trying to prevent the separating walls from being constructed. As the enemies of Jerusalem’s walls, they were attempting to keep Israel from being Israel. They perceived that the walls symbolized exclusiveness, and they resented being outsiders.

This is a curious phenomenon. Why, after all, should they care? If Israel wanted to be exclusive, why should that preference bother anybody else? In fact, nonetheless, Israel’s exclusiveness was deeply resented. Israel’s claim to be a special and holy people, a claim that laid special moral responsibilities on Israel, was simply more than other people could endure. Consequently, Israel’s adversaries have spent much of these two books in a genuine and aggressive snit.

The one place where Israel was truly threatened, however, was not in its building programs, but in the construction of its families, the formation of its homes. Thus, intermarriage with outsiders, which so incensed both Ezra and Nehemiah, was the single path by which Israel could be most effectively led astray.

These lists of Jewish families, therefore, are very pertinent to the general preoccupation and theme of these two books. These genealogies are spiritual walls, designed to protect the identity of God’s chosen people.

The provision permitting one-tenth of its citizens (chosen by lot) to live in the Holy City established a kind of tithe, as it were, of the entire nation. Those who otherwise chose to live there represented a corresponding “free will offering” of the nation.

Saturday, October 25

James 3:13—4:6: James contrasts 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 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.

Nehemiah 12: This chapter, which begins with another genealogical list of priests and Levites (verses 1-26), indicates the importance that proper and verifiable “succession” enjoys in the biblical theology of institutional ministry (as distinct from prophetic ministry).

Next comes an account of the solemn dedication of the wall (verses 27-47) and all that that wall represented by way of the symbolisms we have been discussing.

It is reasonable to understand the narrative’s return to first person singular in verse 31 as an indication that we are once again dealing with the memoir of Nehemiah, on which so much of this book is based.

According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, the event narrated in this chapter took place, not in September, but in December, falling very close in the calendar, in fact, to the date of the Maccabees’ own purification of the temple (recorded in 1 Maccabees 4:60). Both events—the dedication of the walls under Nehemiah in the fifth century and the purification of the temple under Judas Maccabaeus in the second century—are called “Hanukkah,” meaning inauguration or dedication (verse 27; John 4:22). (Only the latter event, however, was incorporated into the Jewish liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Jews each December, even today.)

Nehemiah saw to it that the city was ritually circled by two simultaneous processions conducted on top of the walls, complete with trumpets. The dedication of the walls is portrayed, therefore, as an event of worship. The simultaneous procession of the two groups, marching in opposite directions, constituted what one commentator calls “a stereophonic presentation.”

Sunday, October 26

Luke 20:1-8: Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after his triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, he proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).

His enemies, who have already shown themselves nervous about these events, now approach Him in the Temple to challenge this “authority” implicitly claimed in what has happened. The reader already knows, of course, the source of Jesus’ authority, so the Gospel writers do not tell this story in order to inform the reader on this point. The story is told to show, rather, the Lord’s complete control of the situation, especially His deft discomfiting of these hypocritical enemies. We earlier considered the Lord’s reference to this hypocrisy with respect to their relations to both Himself and John the Baptist

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 of 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).

Monday, October 27

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.

The national life of Judah has collapsed (verses 6-9). God had made this people His children through the Exodus deliverance and covenant, but who can tell it under the current conditions?

Isaiah’s criticism of religious ritual (verses 10-15) was not a condemnation of ritual worship itself. If it were, how do we explain his being called in the Temple, to which the Lord here refers as “My courts” (verse 12)? This criticism was directed, rather, to the separation of ritual from ethics (verses 16-20), two essential components of the Mosaic Law.

Isaiah’s emphasis on social ethics is of a piece with the preoccupations of other prophetic figures of the eighth century, notably Amos and Micah. Both these prophets, we observe, came from Judah, like Isaiah.

Tuesday, October 28

Isaiah 2: Once again Isaiah’s vision, as at the first (1:1), concerns “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1). He is concerned with the ideal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem to come—“it shall come to pass in the last days” (verse 2). It speaks of the future glorification of God’s holy city, that more blessed Jerusalem of promise, of which the ancient capital of David was a prefiguration and type (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10).

It will be, says the prophet, a city of peace (verse 4), something that the Jerusalem on earth has never been. Isaiah will describe this Jerusalem at greater length in chapter 4.

Although the literary and historical relationship between the two texts is uncertain, verses 2-4 of this chapter are substantially identical to Micah 4:1-4.

This oracle is internally balanced by “into Zion” (verses 2-3) and “out of Zion” (verses 3-4). The image of flowing upwards indicates that this is not a natural process, so to speak; it does not follow the natural law of gravity. It suggests, rather, the divine magnetism by which God’s reverses the order of nature.

Isaiah moves from the ideal Jerusalem to the actual, unfaithful city of the time (verses 6-9). This oracle is critical of the idolatrous pursuit of wealth in the Jerusalem of Isaiah’s time. We remember that his prophetic calling came in the last year of King Uzziah (6:1), whose reign (783-742) had restored a great deal of Judah’s prosperity. This prosperity, Isaiah saw, led to the worship of human achievement as a particularly virulent form of idolatry. It was the sin of pride, and it was Isaiah’s task to threaten its punishment.

There is a contrast between the two Jerusalems. Instead of drawing the nations to the ways of God, the prophet describes the actual Jerusalem as conformed to the ways of the nations. With respect to the one, Isaiah declares, “He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” With respect to the second he responds, “They are soothsayers like the Philistines, and they are pleased with the children of foreigners.” That is to say, instead of the Lord’s people teaching true wisdom to the nations, the Lord’s people have deliberately adopted the wisdom of the other nations. This disposition to conform to the expectations of the world remains, of course, a temptation for the people of God in all generations.

Wednesday, October 29

Isaiah 3: The present chapter breaks thematically into two parts: verses 1-15 and verses 16-26.

The first unit is enclosed by “the Lord, the Lord of hosts” (’Adon IHWH Savaoth–verses 1 & 15). Once again this chapter begins with “Jerusalem and Judah” (verses 1,8).

The previous chapter ended with a warning about putting excessive trust in men (2:22). The present chapter continues this theme by listing the failures of Judah’s leadership.

The “staff and stay” (KJV), found twice in this verse, are the masculine and feminine forms of the same noun (mash‘en and mash‘enah). This combination formed an idiom indicating totality, not unlike our English “kit and boodle.” Every form of support, says Isaiah, is coming apart. Can famine (also mentioned in verse 7) be far off?

The prosperity attendant on the reign of King Uzziah was accompanied by grave social inequities and other evils. The present chapter of Isaiah speaks of two such: the lack of adequate leadership (verses 1-15) and the elaborate cultivation of female finery in clothing and adornment (verses 16-24).

Two criticisms are rendered with respect to Judah’s current leadership:

First, Israel’s leadership is in a state of collapse (verses 2-3), and with it all societal support and structure, including the basic technical crafts, such as carpentry. The leadership is immature (verse 4), so all of society disintegrates (verses 5,12). Indeed, this leadership is, itself, an expression of God’s judgment: When the Lord wants to punish a nation, He permits them to have unwise and inexperienced men as its leaders: “I will give children to be their princes, / And babies shall rule over them.”

And again, “Youths oppress my people, / women rule over them. / O my people, your guides lead you astray; / they turn you from the path.” The reference to the rule of “women” is justified by the disastrous example of Athalia in the previous century.

If this oracle is to be dated early in Isaiah’s ministry, it refers to King Jotham (742-735), who was by no means a young man. It may be, however, that Isaiah had in mind King Ahaz (735-716), who was the very embodiment of the problems that the prophet speaks of here.

Since leadership is not taken seriously, says, Isaiah, serious men refuse to assume it (verses 6-7): “Do not make me a ruler of the people.” Thus, the nation is deprived of those governmental ministries on which its very preservation depends—namely, “the mighty man and the man of war, / the judge and the prophet, / and the diviner and the elder; / the captain of fifty and the honorable man, / the counselor and the skillful artisan, / and the gifted composer.” Such men, so essential to a nation’s prosperity, are loath attach themselves to the likes of Ahaz.

Meanwhile, in Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, Israel’s own puny monarchy was on its last legs, destined to fall to the Assyrians in 722. This kingdom is soon to pay the price for its folly.

The Lord will be the Judge for His oppressed and badly governed people (verses 12-15; cf. Psalms 50 [49] and 82 [81], perhaps the liturgical texts on which Isaiah relies).

Second, the mention of women in leadership leads to a sarcastic description of the arrogant clothing styles for women in vogue at the time (verses 16-26). Isaiah’s description is bound to remind a modern reader of a contemporary fashion show, in which a line of pretentious young ladies come strutting across a walkway, walking in ridiculous gyrating strides that have no purpose except to draw meretricious and lascivious attention to themselves: “the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet” (verse 16). Isaiah goes on with an obvious relish for sarcasm, listing the various articles of clothing and jewelry, all the way to purses and hand mirrors.

This passage has been called “the most extensive catalogue of feminine finery found in the Old Testament” ((Page H. Kelley). Isaiah is obviously offended by the vulgarity of these women, who get all dolled up for the sole purpose of calling attention to themselves. When Jerusalem falls, however, all this will be gone. He presents their punishment in a series of contrasts: “Instead of a sweet smell there will be a stench; / Instead of a sash, a rope; / Instead of well-set hair, baldness; / Instead of a rich robe, a garment of sackcloth; / And shame instead of beauty.”

Thursday, October 30

Isaiah 4: The first verse of this chapter goes logically with the previous chapter. The vain, arrogant women, described by Isaiah—despite their vaunted allurements—cannot find husbands, because the casualties of warfare have claimed six of every seven men.

Isaiah is not the only 8th century prophet to express concern about the female half of the population. Amos writes in unflattering tones:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, / Who oppress the poor, / Who crush the needy, / Who say to your husbands, ‘Bring us something to drink! (Amos 4:1)

Whereas Isaiah’s sarcasm expresses concerns about modesty in clothing and adornment, the words of Amos look to another problem: alcoholism. The upper-class women of that period had a great deal of time on their hands, and the prophet did not think they were using it very well. Their financial and social status liberated them from the daily burdens borne by most women, and there was scant opportunity for women to study. What were these ladies to do with themselves?

This social problem, too, sounds very modern: the extensive use of drugs—especially antidepressants—among older and more affluent women is well documented in contemporary epidemiological and clinical literature and remains a source of grave concern to the medical profession. It is instructive to find the identical problem in the 8th century before Christ.

The prophets of that period, however, saw the problem to be spiritual, not simply social or psychological. Women’s exaggerated adornment and their recourse to chemical stimulants were symptoms of a far deeper quandary.

The “Branch of the Lord” (verse 2) is the future Davidic king who will gather the Lord’s elect remnant. He is the fulfillment of the promises made to David. He is portrayed as both human, the fruit of the earth, and divine, as branching forth from the Lord. This is Isaiah’s first explicit prophecy of the Incarnation. Compare Isaiah 11:1—“There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, / And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.”

This remnant, preserved and gathered by the Messiah (verses 2-3), has been transformed by the divine purging. Consequently, it is “holy” (verse 3), marked by a quality proper to God. These survivors have been purged by the spirit of judgment and burning (verse 4), a theme later to be taken up in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12).

Friday, October 31

This final chapter of the Isaian preface is the most melancholy, as the divine judgment now looms most unmistakably over Jerusalem. What more can the Lord do (verse 4)? This chapter breaks into two unequal parts: the parable of the vineyard (verses 1-7) and a description of its terrible harvest (verses 8-30).

The image of the vine appears prominently in Psalm 80 (79):8-16, which bears several resemblances with our Isaian text.

Isaiah begins with the description of the vineyard, which is an image much favored in the Book of Isaiah (3:14-15; 27:2-6; 63:1-6; 65:8-10). The poetry of the first verse is most striking: ’ashírah n’a lidídi shírat dódi lekármo / kérem hayáh lidídi beqéren ben shámen–“let me sing for my beloved my darling’s song of his vineyard; a vineyard my beloved had on a very fertile hill.”

As in our Lord’s parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-44, with parallels in Mark and Luke), Isaiah builds his case gradually, not showing his hand until after the judgment is reached. He describes the vineyard’s construction, his friend’s care for it, and finally the failure of the vineyard to bring forth the fruit that was expected (verses 1-2). Then he calls, once again, on “Jerusalem and Judah” to pass judgment on the vineyard (verses 3-4). Having enumerated the punishments that will be inflicted on the faithless vineyard (verses 5-6), Isaiah at last identifies the vineyard as God’s own people (verse 7), but only after the judgment has been pronounced.

In the chapter’s long second part, Isaiah begins by enumerating the “stinky fruit” is a series of seven “woes” (verses 8-25). This list of woes bears comparison with the list in Matthew 23.

First, “Woe to those who join house to house.” The monopoly of real estate (verse 8), a special evil of the eighth century before Christ (cf. Amos 2:6-8; 3:10,15; Micah 2:2,9), violated the ancient rules of inherited property contained in the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 25; Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-2; Ruth 4:1-4).

Second, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, / That they may follow intoxicating drink.” Alcoholism was a notable problem of the 8th century before Christ. Amos also testifies to this. This vice is not only evil in itself and in its social consequences. It also serves as a symptom of deeper spiritual problems.

Third, “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of vanity, / And sin as if with a cart rope; / That say, ‘Let Him make speed and hasten His work, / That we may see; / And let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near and come, / That we may know.’” Here we have the moral skeptic, who mocks the idea of a final judgment, in which they will have to render an account.

Fourth, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; / Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness.” This is the radical moral perversity, of which St. Paul complains in Romans 1. It is worth remarking that this particular “woe,” which involves the confusion of darkness and light, stands fourth in the sequence. This confusion of light and darkness is a parody of the fourth day of Creation, in which God appointed the heavenly bodies to govern the day and the night.

Fifth, “Woe to those wise in their own eyes, / And prudent in their own sight!” The peril of self-deception is recognized.

Sixth and seventh, “Woe to men mighty at drinking wine, / Woe to men valiant for mixing intoxicating drink, / Who justify the wicked for a bribe, / And take away justice from the righteous man!” As in Amos, so here in Isaiah, alcoholism is the vice of the unjust.

In the final section of this chapter (verses 25-30) Isaiah pictures the coming of the Assyrian invader, who will deport the ten northern tribes in 722, two decades after the prophet’s calling.