Friday, February 20
Proverbs 1: Verses 2-6 of this chapter form a single sentence stating the intent of the book. Proverbs is an educational work, designed to lay down certain insights of prudence, or practical wisdom, in the form of short, pithy sayings, or “proverbs” (mishlim). The wisdom (hokma) conveyed in these sayings has to do with the practical moral assessments that a man must make to lead a godly, just, and productive life (verse 2). This teaching, therefore, pertains to discipline (musar), or self-mastery, as well as the ability to make moral distinctions based on discernment (bina).
Therefore, the wise person (verse 3) will be cautious in the conducting of his life (hashkel), acquainted with the requirements of righteous living (sedeq), able to make sound judgments (mishpat), and to do what is honest (mesharim). If someone learns such things when he is young (verse 4), his wisdom will increase as he grows older (verse 5; cf. 4:18).
This instruction will be grammatical, rhetorical, and imaginary (verse 6), but its principle is moral (verse 7), and its transmission comes from parental tradition (verses 8-9). Hence, religious docility to tradition is absolutely required for its attainment.
One of the first things to be acquired in the pursuit of wisdom is the courage to resist peer pressure (verses 10-19). The clear presumption here is that a young man is surrounded by other young men equally ignorant, who, left to their own devices, will simply pool their ignorance for some common venture ill conceived. Therefore, the young man is first of all warned against the nefarious influence of his possible companions. All through this book we see an insistence on this point: Wisdom is to be learned from the past, not from one’s contemporaries.
The first chapter closes with the first discourse of Wisdom (verses 20-33), an expression formulated by the feminine plural (hokmoth), designating an abstraction. This is Wisdom as it comes from the mind of God (cf. also Proverbs 8; Sirach 1 & 8; Wisdom of Solomon 6-9). The Christology of the New Testament will show this personification to be, in fact, a Person (Luke 11:31; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-20). It is Wisdom that pours forth the Spirit (verse 23; cf. John 7:37-39).
Saturday, February 21
Matthew 12:22-30: The Lord’s work of driving out of demons is once again (cf. 9:32-34) the object of controversy, as His enemies allege that this power comes from Jesus’ collusion with the dark forces themselves. Among the Synoptic accounts of this controversy (cf. Mark 3:2030; Luke 11:14-23) only Matthew records a healing from blindness in the context. This liberation of a man from satanic darkness is contrasted by the example of those who remain steadfast in their own blindness of heart. Having made up their minds to destroy Jesus, they become ever more inveterate in their sins. Hence, this story leads immediately to the theme of the unforgiven sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Proverbs 2: This chapter is a poem of six stanzas on the blessings of wisdom. It begins by enumerating the conditions necessary for attaining wisdom (verses 1-5).
We start to observe here (verse 1) a difference of tone or voice in Proverbs, when compared with the Bible’s prophetic literature. In the prophets the voice is vertical, so to speak; it comes “from above”: “Thus says the Lord!” In Proverbs, on the other hand, the voice is horizontal; it comes “from the past”: “Listen, my son.”
Wisdom is a gift of God, first of all (verse 6). It is religious before it is practical (verse 5), and it has to do with holiness (verse 8), which is the source of understanding (verse 9). Real wisdom abides in the heart (verse 10; cf. 4:23). Once again the young man is warned against bad companions (verses 12-15).
But now, for the first time, the young man is also warned against a certain sort of woman as well (verses 16-19). In context she is any young woman besides his wife, and he is told to avoid her. If she approaches him, she is up to no good, and he should eschew her as something lethal. Just as God’s Wisdom is personified as a lady solicitous for man’s wellbeing (1:20-23), so folly will be personified, in due course, as a loose woman who will bring a man to destruction. It is thematic in the Book of Proverbs that wisdom is not attained without the strenuous discipline of the sexual passion, of which the proper expression is found only in marriage. (The monogamous ideal portrayed in the Book of Proverbs is very strong evidence of some authorial hand other than that of Solomon!)
Sunday February 22
Proverbs 3: Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (1:7; Psalms 111 :10), something must be said rather early about a man’s relationship to God (verses 1-12). Because the Book of Proverbs has often been regarded as (and criticized for being) a work of selfish interest, motivated by secular concerns, it is important that we stress this matter of the fear of the Lord as wisdom’s beginning. This fear of the Lord is crucial, in fact, to the entire enterprise envisaged in Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord is that quality of mind and soul called reverence, and in biblical thought wisdom is inseparable from the cultivation of reverence. The wise man of the Bible is not an arrogant, self-made man who lives by his own lights (verse 5). The wise man is most emphatically NOT the man who “marches to the beat of a different drummer.” He does not make up the rules as he goes along and as they suit him. The wise man lives, rather, in the sight of God at all times, holding his conscience as open as possible to the divine gaze. He trusts in God with all his heart (verses 6-7,26).
This attitude of reverence determines two other things: First, it is the basis of the wise man’s stewardship over the resources that God puts into his hand (verses 9-10). Second, it directs the way a wise man meets the trials of life, namely, for his own correction and refinement of character (verses 11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6). The sufferings of life, for the man keen in the pursuit of wisdom, are pedagogical.
The second section of this chapter (verses 13-35) is part of a longer meditation (through 4:9) about the merits of wisdom. These merits are considered in detail, lest the young man become discouraged by the recent mention of suffering and trial.
In this description of wisdom’s merits, wisdom is again personified as “Wisdom” and this time more closely associated with God Himself (verses 18-20). The teaching, however, still seems more moral than metaphysical. That is to say, the abiding interest in these verses is not the structure of the universe, but the kind of behavior that places a man in accord with the structure of the universe. Nonetheless, these verses do anticipate the metaphysical considerations that will be presented in 8:27-31.
The trust in God described in verses 23-24 puts one in mind of Psalms 91 (90):1-13, which for many centuries has been the daily evening prayer of Western Christians and the daily noontime prayer of Christians in the East.
From his relationship to God, the wise man goes on to consider his social duties to his fellows (verses 27-30; cf. 11:24-26; 14:21,31; 21:13). Above all, the wise man must not be shaken in his resolve when he beholds the prosperity of the wicked (verses 31-35). Even the admission that the wicked may prosper in this world goes strongly against the philosophical current of the Book of Proverbs and touches, however lightly, the moral dilemma faced squarely in the Book of Job.
Monday, February 23
Matthew 12:31-37: Strictly speaking there is no “unforgivable” sin, because God’s mercy stands ready to forgive any sin of which we repent. The whole business of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it is, by definition, the sin of which men do not repent. It is total and inveterate blindness of heart, in which men can no longer discern the difference between light and darkness. Such appears to be the sin of which the Lord’s enemies are guilty in these texts where we find them plotting His death. From a pastoral perspective, it may be said that those Christians who fear they may have committed such a sin should be take courage from the thought that their very fear is strong evidence that they have not done so. Those who are approaching the unforgiven sin are those who no longer even think about repentance and feel no need for it.
Proverbs 4: The Book of Proverbs does not claim to contain the fullness of Israel’s wisdom tradition. It only serves as a guide, rather, and a bulwark of that tradition, the larger body of wisdom being contained and transmitted chiefly through oral delivery (verses 1-9). Consequently the Book of Proverbs is constantly indicating a larger historical context beyond its own text. (In this respect, Proverbs resembles the New Testament, another literary collection that presupposes and addresses a larger social and doctrinal context. Though that context is always present in the New Testament, it is sometimes referred to explicitly, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; 15:1.)
The chief thing a man must teach his son is the Torah (verse 2; Deuteronomy 6:7). Indeed, throughout this chapter we note that the wise man speaks of Wisdom in much the same terms Deuteronomy uses to describe the Law.
Wisdom must become a man’s bride (verses 7-13; cf. Sirach 14:20-27; 51:13-22; Wisdom of Solomon 8:2).
The theme of the “two ways” (verses 10-27) is common in our inherited pedagogy, both Jewish (Deuteronomy 30:15; Jeremiah 21:8; Sirach 15:7; the Qumran Manual of Discipline 3:13—4:26; 2 Enoch 30:15) and Christian (Matthew 7:13-14; Colossians 1:12-13; Didache 1.1—6:2; Pseudo-Barnabas 18.—21:9). Especially stressed is custody of the heart (verse 23; cf. Matthew 12:34; 15:19; 16:23).
Tuesday, February 24
Matthew 12:38-42: Both examples given here, the Ninevites and the queen from southern Arabia, are Gentiles, those of whom Matthew has just been speaking in 12:18-21. The figures of Jonah and Solomon should also be understood here as representing the prophetic and sapiential traditions of Holy Scripture.
Jesus is the “greater than Jonah,” whose earlier ministry foreshadowed the Lord’s death and Resurrection and also the conversion of the Gentiles. The Lord’s appeal to Jonah in this text speaks also of Jonah as a type or symbol of the Resurrection. The men of Nineveh, who repented and believed, are contrasted with the unrepentant Jewish leaders who refuse to believe in the Resurrection (cf. 28:13-15). Matthew will return to the sign of Jonah in 16:2. Jesus is also the “greater than Solomon,” who was founder of Israel’s wisdom literature and the builder of the Temple.
The Queen of the South, that Gentile woman who came seeking Solomon’s wisdom, likewise foreshadowed the calling of the Gentiles. She was related to Solomon as the Ninevites were related to Jonah—as Gentiles who met the God of Israel through His manifestation in the personal lives of particular Israelites.
It is a point of consolation to observe that in neither case—whether Solomon or Jonah—were these Israelites free from personal faults!
Proverbs 5: Except for consecrated celibates like the prophet Jeremiah and the apostle Paul, the godly and productive life of a man normally requires the proper governance of his home. It is the teaching of Holy Scripture, however, that a man cannot govern his home unless he can govern himself. Self-control and discipline, therefore, are among the primary requisites of a good husband and father, and these are qualities to be developed from an early age. Consequently the Book of Proverbs is emphatic on the prohibition of sexual activity outside of marriage. Sex outside of marriage is also outside of God’s will.
A man’s marriage, in fact, can be damaged long before the marriage takes place. Sex before marriage often involves exploitation and disrespect, and it always involves irresponsibility, selfishness, and rebellion. These are bad habits to learn, not qualities in a man that will make him a good husband and father.
The present chapter of Proverbs, accordingly, warns a young man against the wiles of the adventurous woman. With keen psychological perception the Sacred Text indicates that the attraction of such a woman most often has as much to do with vanity as with lust. The young man feels flattered by the woman’s attention (verse 3); it causes him to “feel good about himself,” and it is a simple fact of experience that most of us are disposed to befriend, like, and cultivate those who make us feel good about ourselves. It is one of our great and abiding weaknesses.
Hence, the young man is warned chiefly against the deceptive nature of flattery (verses 4-5). The flattering, adventurous woman has no idea where she is going, so it is very unsafe to follow her (verse 6). Indeed, a sensible man will put as much distance as possible between himself and such a woman (verse 8), for she is Big Trouble (verses 9-14).
In very figurative and flowery language, reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, the young man is exhorted to find joy in his wife (verses 15-20).
Wednesday, February 25
Psalms 49 (Greek & Latin 48): This psalm is not a prayer in our usual sense, of words directed to God. It is, rather, a meditation on a theme having to do with the pursuit of wisdom. Its tone and direction are universal, characterized by a broad and general perspective. It is a philosophical psalm, making its appeal to the human mind as such, any human mind, in any time or place: “Hear these things, all you nations. Give ear, all you who dwell upon the earth.”
Directed to all peoples at all times, it does not mention the specific events of the salvation history narrated in the Bible. It says nothing about the Exodus or the giving of the Law, nothing about the Covenant or Jerusalem, nothing about the Chosen People or the Messiah or salvation.
Rather, it calls upon the human mind, any human mind, to think deeply about certain universal facts and phenomena of human life. The poet invites all mankind to meditate with him on a specific but universal problem.
Now the thing that most strikes the psalmist about human existence is that it ends in death, and he is a fool who forgets or neglects this truth. Human beings tend to take too seriously the wealth and other sorts of honor that this world gives, for death will make it all come to nothing. This ill-placed confidence is no basis for a wise life.
Proverbs 6: This chapter begins with four short poems that depict the qualities of folly. The first poem (verses 1-5) warns against financial irresponsibility in the form of unwise generosity towards one’s friends. Financial entanglements have spoiled many a friendship, and exhortations on this matter appear rather often in the Book of Proverbs (11:15; 17:18; 20:16; 22:26-27).
The second poem (verses 6-11) is directed against laziness. Like Aesop, the author sends us to the animal world for moral lessons (24:30-34). The Septuagint version adds a consideration of the bee to that of the ant.
The third poem (verses 12-15) depicts the ne’er-do-well schemer, full of plans for his own quick profit at the disadvantage of his fellow men. Avoid him, is the counsel.
The fourth poem (verses 16-19) is the first of the “numerical proverbs” in this book. These are found in all parts of the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 32:30; Amos 1—2; Micah 5:4; Job 5:19; 40:5; Sirach 25:7; 26:5,19), and Proverbs will later give a series of them (30:15-31).
In verses 20-23 wisdom is described very much the way that Deuteronomy describes the Law. Indeed, the two things are nearly identified here (cf. especially verse 23, which may remind readers of Psalms 19 and 119).
The last part of the chapter (verses 24-35) returns to the theme of the adventurous woman, who would lure the young man to an early destruction. She is more dangerous than a thief (verses 30-35). Although the earlier penalty for adultery in Israel was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 22:22), the punishment envisaged here seems to be the humiliation of a flogging (verse 33).
Thursday, February 26
Proverbs 7: Proverbs 7: The Book of Proverbs’ sustained warnings against sexual aberration, especially adultery, which directly attacks the institution of the family, argue that one of man’s chief areas of stewardship is sex. Moreover, the book’s several warnings about adulteresses should be viewed as integral to the image of wisdom as Lady Wisdom, which a wise man is said to take as a bride. And just as Lady Wisdom becomes personified in a man’s own wife, Dame Folly is personified in the adulteress. The entire present chapter is devoted to this theme.
Mockery and sarcasm, rhetorical forms used in both the prophetic and sapiential literature of the Bible with some frequency, enjoy the advantage that comes of not taking someone or something as worthy of serious consideration. This chapter illustrates the advantage. The adventurous woman is held up to considerable ridicule, and so is the young fool who falls for her. Indeed, the young man is here given the very words and gestures that she will employ to seduce him. She commences with flattery (verses 5,21); that is to say, she gives the young man “a positive self-image.” (A man who builds his self-confidence on a woman’s approval already demonstrates his immaturity. Prior to the present age it was taken as axiomatic that a young man should not even seek a woman’s approval, and had no right to expect it, until he had proven himself among men in manly pursuits.)
We see the young man walking down the street, dripping with inexperience, a virtual lamb ambling toward the slaughter (verses 6-7). The very fool, he is strolling aimlessly after dark (verse 6-7; Sirach 9:7), unaware that, even if he is not looking for trouble, trouble is looking for him (verses 10-12). The restless lady comes along and promises him a rollicking good time (verses 13-18), mentioning that her husband will be out of town for a while (verses 19-20). (One thinks of Mrs. Potiphar approaching Joseph in Genesis 39.) Thus is the young fellow suckered into sin (verses 21-23). The chapter ends with the exhortation to be on guard, especially keeping custody of the heart (verse 25). What is to be eschewed is the path to death (verse 27), the other of the Two Ways.
Friday, February 27
Matthew 13:1-9: Jesus begins this sermon by sitting down (verse 1)—the posture of the teacher—just as when He began the Sermon on the Mount (5:1; cf. 24:3). A close reading of this text discloses a striking parallel with Revelation 7:9-12, where a great multitude stands before God seated on the throne beside the sea (4:6).
This first parable, in which most of the sown seed is lost, summarizes Jesus’ own experience, as narrated in the previous chapter. So little of the Gospel, it seems, has fallen on fertile ground. As directed to the Church, this parable urges a sense of modesty about “success” in fruitful preaching. A great deal of the sown Word will simply be wasted.
This first parable also provides the foundation for the other six; it is the fountain out of which they flow.
Proverbs 8: In this chapter personified Lady Wisdom herself speaks. Like the adulteress in the previous chapter, she too goes seeking the young man in the streets of the city (verse 2). She too appeals to the heart (verse 5). We observe, however, that she does not use flattery. The young man really needs her, and he has nothing to commend him without her.
In the biblical view, God has first loved us, not we God. Man can seek for wisdom, only inasmuch as wisdom seeks for man. And it is all men that she seeks (verse 4), not merely the Jews.
Wisdom teaches truth, the opposite of which is not merely error, but wickedness (verse 7), and truth is identified with righteousness (verse 8). Wisdom is the highest good, the treasure buried in the field, for the sake of which a man will sell all that he has to purchase that field (verses 10-11). Wisdom is the source of order and justice (verses 12-16). Hence, it is exactly what is required for a man to bring his life into a just order. What a man must have in his heart is the “love of wisdom” (verse 17), an expression called philosophia in Greek. All other gifts come from wisdom (verse 18-19).
Wisdom is the creating companion of God (verses 22-29; Sirach 1:4,8; Colossians 1:15). As such, wisdom is older and more substantial than the physical world (Sirach 24:1-21; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-28). Indeed, wisdom was the Creator’s architect (verses 27-30).
Such is the wisdom concerned in the chapter’s final exhortation (verses 32-36), which is best read as the verso of the exhortation that closed the previous chapter (7:24-27).