Friday, April 22

Psalm 40 (Greek & Latin 39): The correct “voice for this psalm is not in doubt. We know from Hebrews 10 that these are words springing from the heart of Christ our Lord and have reference to the sacrificial obedience of His Passion and death.

We may begin, then, by examining that interpretive context in Hebrews, which comes in the section where the author is contrasting the Sacrifice of the Cross with the many cultic oblations prescribed in the Old Testament. These prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, says Hebrews, possessed only “a shadow of the good things to come.” Offered “continually year by year,” they were not able to “make those who approach perfect” (10:1). That is to say, those sacrifices did not really take away sins, and their effectiveness depended entirely on the Sacrifice of the Cross, of which they were only a foreshadowing. Indeed, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (v. 4).

In support of this thesis, the author of Hebrews quotes our psalm: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire / . . . In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin / You had no pleasure” (vv. 5, 6). In fact, this theme appears rather often in the Old Testament itself. Isaiah, for example, and other prophets frequently attempted to disillusion those of their countrymen who imagined that the mere offering of cultic worship, with no faith, no obedience, no change of heart, could be acceptable to God.

The author of Hebrews, therefore, is simply drawing the proper theological conclusion when he writes: “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (v. 11). What God seeks, rather, is the perfect obedience of faith, and such an obedience means the total gift of self, not the mere sacrificial slaughter of some beast.

Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezekiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.

A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre drew the wood for its shipwrights from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Fittingly, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When the ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.

Saturday, April 23

John 9:1-12: As they behold the blind man, the Lord’s disciples are plagued by a theological problem—namely, whose fault is it that the man was born blind? They phrase this question in a curious and most interesting way: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (9:2). Jesus answers immediately, of course, that neither sinned, but that is not the last time the question will appear in the story.

Thus, His enemies will say of Jesus, “We know that this Man is a sinner” (9:24).
Then, when he refuses to agree with them, the man himself is pronounced
guilty: “You were completely born in sins” (9:34). They thusprovide their own answer to the question first posed by the disciples.

Ezekiel 28: This chapter contains two oracles: one against Tyre, the other against the Phoenician city of Sidon. In the first, no particular king of Tyre is indicated; the message is directed, rather, at that monarchy itself, as an embodiment of wealth and power in idolatrous rebellion against God. Idolatries of wealth invariably become idolatries of power, and in this respect it is significant that the king of Tyre is also indicted for cruelty.

The king, in addition, represented the nation itself, given over to economic aggrandizement and the love of power. As in individuals, so in nations, economic prosperity tends to breed pride, and Tyre, as we have seen, was very prosperous. Quite self-satisfied, it was no longer subject to the Divine Authority that rightly holds sway over the nations, whose eternal law is written into the structure of the world as binding on all men, and before whose Throne the peoples of the earth will in due course be summoned for judgment.

Tyre, in short, thought of itself as a god, and in this respect it was a political form of man’s initial rebellion in Eden. Satan had tempted Tyre as he had tempted Eve, and Tyre, succumbing to the temptation, now thought itself a god. Fallen like Adam, Tyre must now be expelled from the rock garden of Eden. “Stones of fire” (28:13f)—a most striking image—pictures the gold and precious stones of Genesis 2:11f as still being in their molten stage, still radiant with the heat that formed them. (Those stones will appear again in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation.)

The second oracle in this chapter, directed against the Phoenicians’ alternate capital of Sidon, is supplemented by a prose message of hope, renewal, and restoration for Israel. The editorial juxtaposition of these texts creates a literary irony that opposes Tyre’s expulsion from the garden of Eden with Israel’s restoration to its land to plant and care for its vines (verse 26). No longer will Israel be obliged to contend with the thorns and briars of Adam’s fall (verse 24).

Sunday, April 24

Ezekiel 29: The prophet’s attention is now turned southward, to Egypt, the land where Israel of old had first learned the ways of idolatry. In Ezekiel’s eyes Egypt is worthy of special blame for enticing Judah into rebellion against Babylon (verse 16).

This first oracle (29:1-16) was delivered on January 7, 587 (verse 1), when the siege against Jerusalem was in progress. Two years earlier, in 589, King Zedekiah of Judah had turned to Egypt for help against Babylon. In response, Pharaoh Hophra (known outside the Bible as Apries, 589-570) sent an army, which had temporarily driven off the Babylonians and made Jerusalem feel safe. But when the Babylonians came back in force, the Egyptian army fled, and the siege was renewed in earnest (cf. Jeremiah 37:5-10). Such were the events that prompted the present condemnation of Egypt, a nation that proved to be a broken reed. (To complete our story of him, Hophra was not fortunate in his attempts to help his allies. The Greeks at Cyrene later defeated him when he tried to come to the aid of his friends the Libyans. In 570 he was deposed by Amasis [’Ahmose-si-neit], who replaced him as pharaoh and reigned from 570-526.)

In Ezekiel’s present oracle, the pharaoh embodies the nation, just as the king of Tyre represented the Phoenicians in the previous chapter and, like the king of Tyre, the pharaoh, too, is condemned for his arrogance. The dragon of the Nile, the crocodile, is the pharaoh’s mythic symbol, which also represents the ancient serpent of Eden (cf. Revelation 12). As the kingdom of Judah was beginning to sink, it had unwisely reached out and grabbed this reed to keep from drowning, but the reed broke at once.

For Egypt’s sin Ezekiel prophesies forty years of suffering, including refugee status for many of its citizens. Never again, says Ezekiel, will Egypt be a great political power.

This chapter’s second oracle, much shorter (verses 17-21), was delivered much later, on April 26, 571. Indeed, this is the latest of all the oracles for which Ezekiel provides a specific date. According to the historian Josephus, the Babylonians had maintained a siege of thirteen years against Tyre, and by 571 the siege had ended without Ezekiel’s predicted fall of Tyre (verse 18). We may imagine what this circumstance did to Ezekiel’s reputation as a prophet. Had not Deuteronomy commanded that a prophet be stoned to death if his prophecy did not come to pass?

Ezekiel addresses these concerns in the present oracle, arguing that the Lord would give Egypt to the Babylonians in recompense for their failure to take Tyre (verses 19-20). In short, the Lord is free to change His mind. In this instance the evils prophesied against Tyre have been transferred to Egypt. Prophecy, which is, after all, a great deal more than factual prediction, is often founded on an hypothesis—an “if”—even though that “if” may be only implicit. We recall that Jonah learned this lesson in his dealings with the Ninevites.

Monday, April 25

John 9:24-41: The enemies of Jesus in this story are religious theorists. They know that Jesus “is not from God” (9:16), because His interpretation of the Law differs from theirs. By way of contrast, the man born blind begins with no theory. Indeed, he is a practical empiricist, who knows what he sees: “One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). For him, any theories about “who sinned” must commence with certain established facts, facts as plain as the mud that he washed from his eyes.

It is a point of irony that the interrogation of the Lord’s enemies becomes
the impetus driving him to an ever more comprehensive recognition.
Immediately after the healing, he speaks simply of “a Man called Jesus”
(9:11). When pushed on the point, however, he finds himself forced to a new conclusion about Jesus: “He is a prophet” (9:17). As he argues with Jesus’ enemies, logic compels him to admit that Jesus comes from God (9:32). Finally, he recognizes that Jesus is the Son of God, and at his last appearance in this story the man born blind is prostrate beforeHim in adoration (9:35–38).

This intricate narrative is an illustration of a theme introduced early in the Gospel of John. As He begins to heal the blind man, Jesus announces, “I am the light of the world” (9:5), a self-identification paraphrasing a line near the beginning of the Gospel: “That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (1:9). This man born blind, then, is the image of all to whom the true Light appears.

Ezekiel 30: There are two parts in this chapter, the first of which (verses 1-19) is a series of short oracles directed against the cities of Egypt and Sudan (Kush, which is inaccurately translated as Ethiopia in several modern versions), to regions with close political and economic ties.

The second part (30:20-26) is an oracle delivered on April 29, 587 (verse 20). The “broken arm” of the pharaoh refers to the recent defeat of the Egyptian army near Jerusalem when that army was driven away by the Babylonians who had returned to renew their siege of the city. Egypt, Ezekiel foresees, will share in Judah’s exile in some measure.

It is not surprising that some ancient Christian liturgical texts took inspiration from this chapter, especially verse 13, to speak of Jesus’ flight into Egypt as narrated by St. Matthew.

Tuesday, April 26

Psalms 62 (Greek & Latin 61): This psalm is about clinging to God in patience. The address of the psalm goes in a variety of directions—we muse within ourselves, we address our enemies, we speak directly to God, we address one another. This is a psalm supremely useful for settling one’s soul quietly in the presence of God.

“Shall not my soul,” we ask, “be subject to God? because from Him comes my salvation. For He is my God and my salvation. He is my protector, and I shall be disturbed no more.”

Salvation in this psalm, as frequently in the Bible, is something for which we wait in patience. In the grammar of Holy Scripture, salvation is very often spoken of in the future tense: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13 [also 10:9]). From heaven we “eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20), “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

This future perspective of salvation is certainly the one that dominates in the Psalms, where we are forever telling God such things as: “I will rejoice in Your salvation. . . . I have longed for Your salvation . . . . I hope for Your salvation . . . . My soul faints for Your salvation . . . . Let Your salvation come to me according to Your word . . . . My mouth shall proclaim Your salvation . . . .” and so on. This is also certainly the tone of our present psalm.

Ezekiel 31: The oracle in this chapter is dated June 21, 587 B.C. (verse 1). It is constructed of a lengthy and highly detailed poem describing Egypt as a large, imperial tree, dominating the landscape and offering shelter to all the nations (31:1-9). In his portrayal of this tree, Ezekiel once again resorts to the imagery of paradise (verses 8-9).

This poem is followed by a commentary in prose (verses 10-18), prophesying the downfall of Egypt. The great height of the tree, reaching up into the clouds, symbolizes man’s political and economic endeavors to attain heaven on earth by his own resources. To Ezekiel it is a symbol of arrogance, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The cedar, which in olden times was symbolic of great longevity, represents man’s quest for a utopian permanence, a quest common to political idolatry.

Throughout the entire chapter the reader will observe in particular the image of water, bearing in mind Egypt’s long-time reliance on the Nile River and its highly developed system of irrigation.

Wednesday, April 27

First Corinthians 16:1-24: We come to the closing of First Corinthians, much of which, as usual toward the end of Paul’s letters, consists of the sending of greetings. He speaks of the mission to Ephesus of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (verse 17). He refers to the household of Stephanas as “the first fruits of Achaia” (verse 15), meaning the first household he had baptized in Greece.

Evidently Paul’s memory has improved a good deal since he began this epistle, because back in 1:14-16 he had momentarily forgotten that he had even baptized the household of Stephanas!

Paul also sends greetings from Aquila and Prisca (verse 19), who are currently living at Ephesus (Acts 18:18). This couple is very well known at Corinth, of course (Acts 18:1-3). Paul has been dictating this epistle to Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1), who is likewise well known back in Corinth (Acts 18:17), but he takes the pen himself in verse 21. Paul normally does this toward the end of each epistle (Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; Philemon 9). He began this custom when writing Second Thessalonians, in order to authenticate each epistle as his own (2 Thessalonians 3:17), after he learned of a forgery being circulated in his name (2:2).

Ezekiel 32: This chapter contains Ezekiel’s final two oracles against Egypt.

The first of these (though given later than the one that follows it), is dated on March 3, 585 (verse 1). Although it was delivered during the winter that followed the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, no reference is made to that event. Some of the imagery of this oracle recalls the plagues with which the Lord had long before struck the land of Egypt: the floods of blood and the great darkness (the first and ninth plagues). The great sin of Egypt declared in this oracle was pride.

The second (and earlier) of these two oracles was delivered on April 27, 586, prior to Jerusalem’s downfall. In his massive and detailed description of the nether world, Ezekiel sounds a theme from classical literature; the attentive reader can hardly fail to notice the similarities that this oracle has to the nether world descriptions in the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

Ezekiel’s description is similarly preoccupied with the thought of warfare and conquest. As Homer and Virgil portrayed the netherworld in the context of the fall of Troy, Ezekiel portrays it in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, it is in the netherworld, the realm of death, that the prophet finishes his oracles against those nations that rose up in rebellion against God’s authority over history. This second part of the Book of Ezekiel comes to an end.

Thursday, April 28

Ephesians 1:1-14: As he has done in all his epistles since Galatians, Paul begins this letter with a reference to his own ministry as an “apostle,” an missionary and spokesman for Christ. This ministry, he says, is “through the will of God.” He claiming this authority, conscious that he speaks on behalf of God, Paul establishes the platform on which to address those who claim to be Christians. This entire letter is based on that presumption.

When Paul speaks of God’s will here, the divine thelema, the word does not refer to some sort of “faculty” internal to God. It has to do, rather, specifically to Paul’s vocation, which itself is part of the concrete development of the divine plan of salvation. This divine plan—known throughout this epistle as the mysterion—includes Paul’s conversion and vocation to apostolic ministry. Paul’s unique relationship to that “will of God” provides the forum in which the Apostle addresses his readers.

Ezekiel 33: This chapter has four parts. In the first (verses 1-9) the prophet is portrayed as a watchman keeping vigil over a city, responsible for warning the citizens of any impending peril. It is not the concern of the watchman whether or not the citizens pay him any heed; his responsibility is simply to sound the warning. The remaining responsibility belongs to the citizens themselves. The dominant images in this part are the sword and the trumpet.

This theme of warning is what joins the first part to the second (verses 10-20). In biblical prophecy there is often an implied hypothesis: “Such-and-such will happen, unless . . .” Many prophetic predictions contain, by implication, a conditional clause: “If . . . then . . .”

In this second part of the chapter Ezekiel repeats much of the message that we saw in Chapter 18 — namely, it is not what a man was that is important, but what he becomes. Consequently, neither former good nor former evil will be credited to a man who has changed his ways.

The third part of this chapter (verses 21-22) takes up the narrative of Ezekiel’s life, broken off after Chapter 24 by the insertion of the oracles against the nations (Chapters 25-32). We recall that Ezekiel’s wife had died, leaving him struck dumb with grief. At that time the Lord foretold to him that he would recover his speech when a messenger arrived to tell of Jerusalem’s downfall (24:25-27).

This third part of Chapter 33 now tells of the arrival of that messenger on January 8, 585, narrating Jerusalem’s fall the previous summer. The walls of Jerusalem had been breached in July (cf. Jeremiah 39:2; 52:6f), and a month later the temple had been deliberately destroyed (2 Kings 25:8f; Jeremiah 52:12). When this news reaches him, Ezekiel’s tongue is loosened, and he is once again ready to be God’s spokesman.

Therewith follows the fourth part of this chapter (verses 23-33), which blames the desolation of the Holy Land on the sins of its inhabitants. Ezekiel’s fellow hostages in Babylon love to hear him for his eloquence, and they come often to listen to him. But it will do them no good, for they refuse to repent. Too late will they learn what they missed.

Friday, April 29

John 3:1-13: Much of Johannine theology theology is elaborated in conversations between Jesus and certain individuals. Most of the time, these individuals can easily be understood as the historical “source” of the conversation in question. Thus far, it appears that John has relied on the personal memories of Andrew, Philip, Nathanael, and the Mother of Jesus. The material in the first part of the present chapter surely came to him through the memory of Nicodemus. Other conversations will follow, such as those with the Samaritan woman at the well, the lame man at Bethesda, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and so forth.

In this conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly which words pertained to that original conversation and which words represent the Evangelist’s extended meditation on that conversation. That is to say, John himself appears to be meditating on the words of Jesus. At a certain point in this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, the dialogue becomes a monologue of the Evangelist himself. We will meet the identical phenomenon when we come to the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

The Pharisee Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” and “a teacher of Israel,” appears only three times in the New Testament. Each time Nicodemus is found only in the Fourth Gospel, it is always in the context of the Lord’s redemptive death.

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 [88]). 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 [71]).