Friday, March 10

Psalms 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.

This obedience of Christ our Lord is a matter of considerable importance in the New Testament. He Himself declared that He came, not to seek His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (John 5:30). This doing of the Father’s will had particular reference to His Passion, in which “He . . . became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This was the obedience manifested in our Lord’s prayer at the very beginning of the Passion: “Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36).

Proverbs 19: Circumspection, not haste, is the way of correct action (verse 2); this is a warning against precipitous and impassioned reactions (cf. 18:13; 21:5; Romans 10:2). When swift action is called for in circumstances that do not permit the taking of adequate counsel, such action will be more safely and prudently taken by the man who normally does not act precipitously. That is to say, a person who normally takes adequate counsel before acting on his decisions is the one most likely to react wisely when he does not have opportunity to take counsel. He is the one who will not lose his head under pressure. He will keep his emotions at bay and not act on the basis of them (verse 11), knowing that acting on passion tends to become a habit (verse 19).

Verse 7 should not be understood in a sense that would treat all friendships with skepticism. It is simply a realistic warning that not all friends, after all, can be relied upon all the time. The person who believes otherwise will soon be embarrassed (cf. 25:19).

A gift given to the poor is a loan to God (verse 17; cf. 14:31; 17:5; 22:9; Matthew 10:42). We do well to bear in mind that God pays a generous interest on such loans.

Perhaps the Book of Proverbs contains no more important a sentiment, a conviction strongly to be maintained in the heart, than “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (verse 14; cf. 18:22).

Saturday, March 11

Matthew 16:5-12: The Sadducees are included here among the enemies of Jesus (contrast Matthew 16:6 and 11 with Mark 8:15). Matthew’s text here reflects certain concerns that arose in Judaism (and consequently among Jewish Christians) after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Foremost among the Jewish groups who lost credibility in the aftermath of that event was the party of the Sadducees. This group, it was generally believed, had been excessively compliant with the Roman powers for over a century, too compromising, too little disposed to speak up for the people as the Pharisees had done. Consequently, after the year 70 the Sadducees came into bad odor among rank-and-file Jews.

Moreover, this party was bound to lose power, because their power had been concentrated in the temple priesthood, which was put out of business by the destruction of the temple. In Matthew we observe (three times in these verses, and elsewhere in 3:7; 22:34) explicit criticisms of the Sadducees not found in the other gospels. Mark (12:18) and Luke (20:27) mention the Sadducees only once each.

Proverbs 20: This chapter contains sound counsel about the avoidance of useless problems. It is folly, for example, to provoke those in authority (verse 2). It is equally imprudent and useless to engage in unnecessary strife (verse 3).

Especially to be avoided is the exacting of revenge (verse 22; cf. 25:21-22). Of all human pursuits, revenge is the most unprofitable, seldom or almost never to the advantage of the one who exacts it. There is, moreover, a distinct likelihood that the one seeking revenge may be putting himself secretly in the place of God. This truth does not deny, of course, the valid claims of justice, exacted by proper legal authority. Still, the wrath of man is not to be identified with the justice of God (James 1:20). The Bible’s condemnation of revenge pertains less to the valid claims of legal and civil justice than to the emotional sense of satisfaction derived from inflicting personal retribution. The latter, let it be said, is a pursuit devoid of blessing. Much better is it to leave all vengeance to the God who neither deceives nor can be deceived (verse 24). For this reason, vengeance is strictly discouraged in both the Old Testament (24:29; Sirach 28:1) and the New (Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:17,19; 1 Peter 3:9).

This chapter also devotes attention to the importance of steady labor and the sustained application of effort (verses 4,13), as well as to integrity in commercial dealings (verses 10,23).

Sunday, March 12

Matthew 16:13-20: This text presents the definitive answer to the major and defining question of the Christian faith, the true identity of Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because this confession of faith was (and still is) regarded as the foundation stone of the Christian Church, the nickname “Rock” (perhaps closer to “Rocky” in English) was given to the man who made it, Simon Bar Jonah (or, in English, “Simon Johnson”). It was in Simon’s fishing boat that Jesus was earlier confessed to be “truly the Son of God” (14:33), so that his boat becomes in the gospels a great symbol of the Church. The great prominence of this “Rocky Johnson”(Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek) among the Twelve Apostles is indicated by the fact that his name appears first in every single New Testament list of the Twelve. Those early churches most closely associated with the Apostles Peter and Paul enjoyed a singular eminence and spiritual authority among all the early Christians. Chief among them were the churches at Antioch and Rome.

Proverbs 21: A wise man will learn, not only when he submits to reprimand, but also when he sees others appropriately chastised (verses 11-12). This truth points us to one of the great advantages of studying history, because history is, among other things, the chronicling of God’s judgments against fools and scorners, and a wise man will take these lessons of history to heart.

We recently learned that a prudent woman is a gift from the Lord (19:14); a contentious wife, on the other hand, is a curse beyond human endurance (verses 9,19; cf. 25:24; 27:15).

God’s assessment of a man’s heart is not to be identified with a man’s assessment of his own heart (verse 2; cf. 16:2). “Feeling good about yourself” (Also known as “It works for me) is the most deceptive of feelings and keeps the soul forever immature and self-centered.

The “king” in verse 1 is any king. Since kings, holding sway over nations, are in an excellent position to influence the paths of history, God may be said to follow a certain economy of effort by using the decisions of kings to bring about His own purposes. God does not have to do this, obviously, but Holy Scripture indicates that He does. On the other hand, while kings have their own projects and programs that affect the lives of many, the Bible (including Proverbs) is persuaded that God’s plans are not identical with those of the king, even when He employs the king’s decisions to bring them about. Ultimately, then, it is not the great men of the earth who determine the destinies of nations, but the Lord, who sees and knows all things, even those events that lie in the contingent future. God’s will prevail (verses 30-31).

Monday, March 13

Matthew 16:21-23: When the sower sows the seed of God’s Work, some of it falls “beside the way . . . . Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that is sown in their hearts” (4:15). Such is the case of Simon Peter, who refuses to hear the word of the Cross. Satan takes it from his heart. Thus, Jesus addresses him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (8:33).

Romans 16:17-27: Paul sends the salutations of those who are with him at Gaius’s house in Corinth (verse 23; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14; Acts 19:29).

Prior to sending these salutations, however, Paul warns the Romans against schism, heresy, and dissension (verses 17-18). He knows there are trouble-makers abroad. Indeed, among the Jewish Christians who were returning to Rome during those years, he may have recognized some of the very individuals who had been sowing dissent among his own congregations in the East.

The tone of Paul’s warnings here differs greatly in style from the rest of the Epistle to the Romans. One would think that Paul, as thought on the friends in Rome that he had just named, had somewhat forgotten that he was writing to a church that he had not founded. He reverts to his more usual style, so that these few verses more closely resemble the other epistles. For example, one may compare verses 17-20 with Galatians 6:12-17.

Proverbs 22: The shared humanity of the rich and the poor (verse 2) is the basis of our moral obligation to care for the poor (verses 9,22; cf. 29:13), and the Lord is the avenger of their neglect (verse 16; 23:1-11). This chapter’s subsequent exhortation not to oppress the poor resonates with the voices of the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:8-9; Jeremiah 22:13-19; Micah 2:1-5; Habakkuk 2:6-17).

At verse 17 a new collection of maxims begins, in which the independent and impersonal couplets are replaced by a return to personal address: “my son.” The section, which continues through 24:22, commences with an exhorting call to wisdom (verses 17-18). A man must begin the quest of wisdom by putting his trust in God (verse 19) and the remembrance that there is no wisdom apart from truth (verses 20-21).

A good reason for not associating with an angry man is that one may start to imitate him (verses 24-25), but one can think of other reasons as well.

The warning against imprudent economic entanglements (verses 26-27) is an echo of several passages in Proverbs (6:1; 11:15; 17:18; 20:16).

Verse 28 is the classic principle of conservative philosophy, which will be repeated in the next chapter (23:10).

Tuesday, March 14

Titus 1:1-16: This very solemn introduction (verses 1-4) rivals those of the longer epistles, which were addressed to whole congregations. In this respect the Epistle to Titus may be contrasted to the other epistles addressed only to individuals (Timothy, Philemon).

God’s promise was made at the dawn of history (verse 2), but now it is manifest in the preaching of the Gospel (verse 3). All of history was guided by that original promise, so the Gospel embraces all of history in its scope and interest.

Paul’s directions for the choice and ordination of ministers (verses 5-9) correspond to those that he had given to Timothy a year or so earlier (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Such a minister is called both an “elder” (presbyteros —verse 5) and an “overseer” (episkopos —verse 6). In these two Greek words we discern the etymological roots of the English words “priest” and “bishop.” Only in the very early second century, it would seem (for our first extant witness, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote in 107), did the two terms come to signify two distinct offices. (This reasonable hypothesis argues only that there was a development in terminology, not a development in the ministry itself.)

It is imperative to observe that the authority of these men comes from their choice and ordination by Titus (and Timothy and so on), who in turn were authorized by Paul. The New Testament knows of no legitimate ordained ministry except by an historical continuity traceable to those eleven men who received the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).

That is to say, Christian pastoral ordination is an historical institution, literally “handed down,” conferred by the laying on of hands by those authorized to do so; the notion of a “succession” is essential to this ministry.

Proverbs 23: The greatest conceit a man can cultivate is a trust in “his own” wisdom (verse 4), because true wisdom is the shared inheritance of human experience. Therefore, it is no proper goal of education that a student should be taught “to think for himself.” Any idiot can learn that on his own. (The Greek word for “his own” is idios.) It is a proper goal of education, rather, that a student should learn to think the thoughts of Plato, of Aristotle, of Amen-em-Opet, of Ahikar, of Confucius, of the other great minds whose ideas have fed and sustained entire civilizations. A true education, an introduction to wisdom, comes from hearing the instruction of those who are truly wise (verse 12). Idiosyncratic isolation is arguably the greatest enemy to the acquisition of wisdom.

Wednesday, March 15

Titus 2:1-15: In the previous chapter Paul had spoken about being “sound in the faith” (hygiainosin en tei pistei-—1:13). Such “soundness” is the mark that he further inculcates in the present chapter, exhorting Titus to “speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (hygiainousei didaskalioi-—verse 1), so that mature men may be “sound in faith” (hygiainantes tei pistei-—verse 2) and of “sound speech” (logon hygie-—verse 8). This “soundness” (in the Greek root of which, hygi, we recognize our English words “hygiene” and “hygienic”) is a noted theme also in the letters to Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13; 4:3).

Christian teaching, that is to say, should carry the marks of intellectual, moral, and emotional health. It will not recommend itself if it encourages thoughts, sentiments, and behavior that are manifestly unhealthy.

Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).

A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.

True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded by other men as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.

God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.

Thursday, March 16

Titus 3:1-15: Titus 3:1-15: As always, Paul is solicitous for the good reputation of Christians, knowing that the fortunes of the Church’s evangelism and ministry in this world depend, in no small measure, on that reputation. Thus, in the previous chapter he urged that the conduct of Christian women be such as not to hurt God’s cause (2:5).
Now, following that same solicitude in the present chapter, he urges Christians “to be subject [hypotassesthe, the same verb as in 2:5] to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, . . . showing humility to all men” (verses 1-2; cf. verse 8). Few things, surely, would more seriously impede the cause of the Gospel than the impression that Christians are contentious, rebellious, disobedient, and unpatriotic (cf. also Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13).

Proverbs 25: The eighth-century scribes of King Hezekiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29). It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name. Given the courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7 is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.

Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.

A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limitations. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of personal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. To refuse to recognize limitations is a marker along the path to loss of identity. Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical applications of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezekiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722 B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he failed to do so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.

Friday, March 17

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11: The very sequences of times and seasons, which elsewhere in the Bible represent God’s covenanted care for man (Genesis 8:22; Psalm 103[104]:19–24), provoke in the mind of Ecclesiastes only the deepest sense of ennui (Ecclesiastes 1:3–8; 3:2–8). Even if wisdom can be attained—which prospect he deems unlikely (7:23–24)— wisdom and grief are inseparable (1:18).

For all that, Qoheleth is no Buddhist. “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,” for Ecclesiastes, represents only a vexing impression with which his believing mind struggles. In spite of this impression, he remains a man of faith, and ultimately his philosophical choice is inseparable from that faith.

Proverbs 26: A major problem of being a fool is that one does not normally know he is a fool. Indeed, among the conspicuous characteristics of the fool is his inability to reflect on his own intellectual and moral shortcomings, which, left unattended over the years, tend to become progressively shorter. The fool is usually a proud, sullen, independent man, recalcitrant to instruction and correction from the outside, so that he is hardly in a position to help himself very much from the inside (verses 1-12; 28:26).

We may note in passing that nowhere in Proverbs do we find compassion for a fool. This is not to say that the fool should not be pitied, and other parts of Holy Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, would surely prompt us to pity him. Proverbs, however, is rather short on compassion, on the whole, restricting that blessing pretty much to those who are poor for reasons besides their own fault. If one wants to be instructed on the ways of compassion, Proverbs is probably not the book to start with.

Rather early in his career, the fool discouraged those who tried to help him, and such discouragement reinforced the negative aspects of his social relationships. Leaving aside the particulars of physical appearance, we may recognize the biblical fool in the character of Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations, of whom Charles Dickens tells us that he, “was so sulky a fellow that he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury, did not take up an acquaintance in a more agreeable spirit. Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension—in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled about in a room—he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire, who had nursed this combination of qualities until they made the discovery that it was just of age and a blockhead. Thus, Bentley Drummle came to Mr. Pocket when he was a head taller than that gentleman, and half a dozen heads thicker than most gentlemen.”

Not far from being fools are the merely lazy (verses 13-16), the habitually contentious (verses 17-22; 28:25), and the flattering (verses 23-26; 28:23; 29:5; cf. Sirach 27:25-28).