Friday, April 21
But Creation is the stage on which God makes history, so in stanza 2, verses 10–22, we move from Genesis to Exodus. This we may think of as the “history stanza,” containing material from the Books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua. In this stanza likewise there is a fourfold series of verbs (again, descriptive participles in Hebrew), this time mainly in pairs, that describe God’s redemptive activity for His people: (1) “struck Egypt . . . and brought out Israel;” (2) “divided the Red Sea . . . and made Israel pass through;” (3) “overthrew Pharaoh . . . led His people through the wilderness;” (4) “struck down great kings . . . slew famous kings . . . and gave their land as a heritage.”
Finally, stanza 3, verses 23–26, speaks of God’s continuing care for His people down through the ages. He is not simply a God of the past, but of “us,” the present generation of believers. The last part of the psalm is about here and now: “remembered us in our lowly estate . . . rescued us from our enemies . . . gives food to all flesh.”
Thus, Psalm 136 pursues a threefold theme: creation, deliverance, and the continued care of the redeemed. In this respect, the triple structure of our psalm is identical with that of the Nicene Creed: God made us, God saved us, God stays and provides for us all days unto the end. In the Creed, this structure is explicitly Trinitarian: “one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”
Psalm 136 insists, literally in every verse, that the root of all of God’s activity in this world, beginning even with the world’s creation, is mercy—hesed. This mercy is eternal—le‘olam—“forever.” Mercy is the cause and reason of all that God does. He does nothing, absolutely nothing, except as an expression of His mercy. His mercy stretches out to both extremes of infinity. “For His mercy endures forever” is the palimpsest that lies under each line of Holy Scripture.
Saturday, April 22
Psalm 145 (Greek & Latin 144): This psalm of most exuberant praise is also the last one composed (in the original Hebrew) as an alphabetic acrostic, and perhaps it is the one that best illustrates the intent of that rhetorical medium. To begin each successive line of a psalm with the next letter of the alphabet is not simply a cute literary trick. In the Book of Psalms this device serves, rather, to state an aspiration to a truth—namely, that God is to be praised by every sort of sound, that every conceivable formulation of our throat and tongue and lips is to be directed to the divine glory, that no kind of intonation should be deprived of His presence.
And Psalm 145 conveys this verity in grand style. Indeed, this psalm so overflows with rich, resonating magnificence that it is nearly a crime simply to recite it. The very luxury of the sounds needs to be tasted, the mouth and throat filled by its glory. I confess that for many years I have habitually sung this psalm in the shower (always in the eighth tone).
The dominating ideas appear repeatedly, variously combined and in endless replications: benediction, magnificence, glory, abundance, majesty. To speak of “restraints” imposed on this psalm by reason of its acrostic form (as one curiously benighted commentator does) is a judgment belied by every line. There are no discernible restraints in this most prodigal of psalms. Psalm 144 is sumptuous and extravagant. It is an earthly taste of the very joy of heaven.
Psalm 144 is pleased to carry forward the image of Christ as King: “I will extol You, O my God and King; Your name will I bless forever, and from age to age! Every day will I bless You and praise Your name, always and for ever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; there is no measure to His majesty. . . . O let them bless You, Lord, all Your works, and let Your saints extol You! They shall tell the glory of Your kingdom, and Your sovereignty (literally “dynasty,” dynasteia) will they proclaim, that the sons of men may know Your might, and the glory of the magnificence of Your kingdom. An eternal kingdom is Your kingdom; Your authority holds sway, from age to age.”
Psalm 145 is the voice of the new life within us, that life of which Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Each mounting crescendo of this psalm abounds with the life of the victorious Christ: “Generation after generation will praise Your deeds, and make declaration of Your might. The magnificence of the glory of Your holiness they will tell, and Your wonders will they proclaim. They will speak the power of Your fearsome deeds, and expound on Your magnificence. They will herald the remembrance of Your goodness, and in Your righteousness will they exult.”
The God praised in this psalm is praised chiefly for His great and rich mercy: “Compassionate is the Lord and merciful, longsuffering and abounding in mercy. Gracious is the Lord to all alike; His compassions rest on all His works.”
The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world; it is truly eternal and transcendent and belongs to heaven. Accordingly, the words and sentiments of our psalm repeatedly raise the mind above earthly things to the realm of eternal life. Several expressions of eternity appear in its lines: “from age to age,” “for ever and ever,” and so forth. Its emphasis thus goes beyond specific and individual deeds. Accordingly, it is one of a short series of psalms, near the end, that forms a final doxology to the whole Psalter.
Sunday, April 23
1 Peter 2:13-25: When we have turned to Christ and received His grace, being incorporated into His Church through the Sacraments, we still find ourselves living in the world. More specifically, we still find ourselves someplace in the structures of society, our obligations to that society not a whit diminished. Indeed, it may occur to us to inquire just how our responsibilities in society may be altered by our new status as Christian believers.
That is to say. How am I, now that I am a Christian, to live as a husband? Or as a wife? Does being a Christian lay some special obligations on me as a son or daughter, perhaps obligations of which I was not aware before? What are my duties, as a Christian, with respect to my being a buyer or seller, an employer or employee? Suppose, indeed, I am a slave. How, as a Christian slave, am I to be different than I was before? In fact, suppose I own slaves. What are my duties to them, whether they are Christian or not? All such concerns about one’s station in life fall under the heading that Martin Luther called Haustafel, “household code.”
Since Christians from the very beginning have struggled to understand how the Gospel affects their duties in whatever state they find themselves, it is not surprising, therefore, that early Christian pastors addressed such concerns at length. This is true of the Apostle Paul (Colossians 3:18—4:1; Ephesians 5:22—6:9; 1 Timothy 2:8-15; 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10), Ignatius of Antioch (Polycarp 4.1—6.3), Polycarp of Smyrna (Philadelphians 4.2—6.3), and Clement of Rome (Corinthians 270-275,286-291). It also appears in standard pre-baptismal catechesis of the period (Didache 4.9-11; Pseudo-Barnabas 19.5-7).
This is the social setting for Peter’s treatment of the same theme in the section that we come to now. Even while we are sojourners in this world, he says (2:11), we are still citizens that have obligations to society and the government, including the emperor [Nero!] (verses 13-17). Some of us are servants, with obligations to our masters (verses 18-25). Some are wives, with duties to our homes and husbands (3:1-6), and others are husbands, responsible for the wellbeing of our wives (3:7).
In the present chapter Peter speaks of Christian citizenship under the authority of the State and of Christian servants under the authority of their masters.
Like Paul in Romans 13, Peter reminds Christians that all legitimate authority in this world comes from God and must not, therefore, be disdained by those who believe they have a higher and more immediate access to God. They are to obey the government “for the Lord’s sake.” That is to say, they will be no less good citizens than non-Christians, but their motivation will be directed to Christ, as the true author of all legitimate authority in this world (verses 13-17).
This exhortation stands even today as a warning to those Christians that seem ever to be going out of their way to pick fights with legitimate governments, always, of course, appealing to the testimony of their conscience. Like Paul, Peter prefers cooperation with the government when possible, not making government’s life more difficult than it already is.
Even bolder is Peter’s exhortation to the servant, under legal obligation to a master (who, in many cases, surely, was not a Christian). These servants he reminds that God’s own Son became a servant for our sake and suffered indignities gladly out of love for God (verses 18-25).
Monday, April 24
1 Peter 3:1-12: In the first few verses Peter finishes his treatment of the Haustafel from the previous chapter.
He begins with the wives, whom he exhorts to be submissive to their husbands. This is to be the case, says Peter, even in those instances where the husband is an unbeliever (verse 1). (This is the situation in which a woman already married becomes a Christian. In no case may a Christian woman actually marry an unbeliever—2 Corinthians 6:15-18.) In this case, as in the case of a Christian living in civil society (2:15), Peter hopes for the good influence of the believer on the unbeliever.
Peter probably intends some of his comments here to pertain to Christian women generally, and not just to wives. This is surely the case respecting chastity and modesty (verse 3-5). His concern in this regard is similar to that of Isaiah (3:16-24), who apparently enjoyed poking fun at the way the women in the eighth century loved to preen themselves.
In spite of Abraham’s frequently unhappy home life, much of it caused by wife’s dramatic mood swings, Peter still holds out for Christian wives the example of Sarah (verse 6). This is not the only time in the New Testament where Sarah is “given a pass” (cf. Hebrews 11:11 compared with Genesis 18:12-15).
Christian husbands are to be good husbands precisely because they are Christians (verse 7). What is owed to the wife is “honor,” and this because she is “weaker.” This does not refer physical weakness generally (and certainly not to any alleged intellectual or moral weakness in women, something that only an inexperienced fool would fancy), but to a certain delicacy in the female. Peter is quietly presuming that a woman’s constitution, which is far more “complicated” than a man’s, renders her inherently more vulnerable to danger, much like the delicacy of an expensive vase. Indeed, Peter even uses the metaphor of a “vessel.” This is a dining room vessel, not a ship. Certain things of beauty and delicacy in the home are given special honor. Wives are to be treated in a similar way by Christian husbands. They are NEVER to be handled roughly, not even in thought and most certainly not in word.
The affection, respect, deference, courtesy, compassion, and tenderness necessary to life in the home is to be extended to the larger home of the Church, and thence to the rest of society (verses 8-9). This effort will be expressed in a stern control of one’s tongue (verse 10) and the steady quest to create atmospheres of peace (verse 11). Blessing must cover all things (verse 9). (I refer the reader here to the Book of Ruth, where he is counseled to count the constant blessings that its sundry characters heap on one another. Christians must pass up no opportunity to bless.)
Tuesday, April 25
Exodus 2: This chapter divides into several sections: Moses’s birth and infancy (2:1-10), his flight from Egypt to Midian (2:11-15), his new life among the Midianites (2:16-23, and the author’s return to the theme of Israel’s oppression in Egypt (2:23-25). These final verses prepare immediately for the account of Moses’ encounter with the Lord in chapter 3.
As the first section opens, vv. 1-11, we learn that Moses was born of the family of Levi, the priestly tribe. His parents’ names—though we learn them only later— were Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20).
We learn, as well, that Moses had an elder sister, identified later as Miriam. This sister, now introduced to the reader, will become an important character in the rest of the Moses saga. We will not hear of her again until she shows up with a tambourine beside the Red Sea in chapter 15. At that time, she will be called a prophetess; she is, indeed, the first woman in the Bible to be so called.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the appearance of the newborn Moses is given as the reason why his parents “were not afraid of the king’s command,” the entire context is that of faith: “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden three months by his parents, because they saw that he was a beautiful child” (11:23). Here the point is very subtle indeed. When the parents looked upon little Moses, they were able to discern “by faith” some aspect of the child’s appearance that was not otherwise obvious. We recall that this section of Hebrews began by defining faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). In Hebrews 11, faith invariably has to do with an adherence to the unseen future. The infant Moses, then, gave evidence of something hoped for but not yet seen, and faith granted his parents a special discernment in his regard.
The newborn Moses is placed into what most English translations call a “basket,” which his mother “daubed with asphalt and pitch,” in order to waterproof it. In the Hebrew text the noun translated as “basket” is tevah, an Egyptian loan-word. It is used here and in only one other setting in the Bible, where it designates the “ark” of Noah. That vessel, too, we recall, Noah was commanded to “calque with pitch, inside and outside” (Gen. 6:14). The word tevah is otherwise not found in Holy Scripture.
This exclusive use of an Egyptian word is very significant, because it prompts us to read the stories of Noah and Moses together. The author has in mind to tie these two accounts together in a very explicit way, so that the correspondence between them would be unmistakable. The geographical setting of the Moses story may have suggested the use of this Egyptian noun, tevah.
There stands out, in short, a clear literary parallel between the stories of old Noah near the beginning of Genesis and young Moses near the beginning of Exodus.
Wednesday, April 6
Exodus 3: We come now to Moses’ meeting with God in the Burning Bush on Mount Horeb. In Holy Scripture, the mountainous range known as Horeb (“wasteland”) sometimes refers to its major peak, Mount Sinai. This is especially true of those sections of the Hebrew Bible traceable to the sources of the northern tribes (for instance Exodus 17:6; 33:6; 1 Kings 8:9; 19:8). This is almost exclusively the case in Deuteronomy.
The story of the Burning Bush here requires two chapters, being the longest “call story” in the Bible. The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi speculated that the event took an entire week!
God identifies Himself here as the same God who spoke of old to the patriarchs. Indeed, it is worded in ways that evoke those earlier revelations. Thus, God said to Isaac, ““I am the God of your father Abraham; do not fear, for I am with you” (Genesis 26:24). And to Jacob He declared, “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac . . . Behold, I am with you” (Genesis 28:13, 15). So here God tells Moses, ““I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob . . . I will certainly be with you” (vv. 6, 12).
The present commission, however, distinguishes Moses from all that went before. From time to time the patriarchs had been told to do certain things (cf. Genesis 12 and 22, for instance), but they were never, strictly speaking, given some task to which they were to devote their entire lives. Moses is the first and prototype of the man called to the exclusive service of God and ministry to God’s people. After him the Bible will describe many such calls.
The revelation of the Name is conveyed in vv. 13-15, one of the most important passages in the whole Bible. They introduce what Etienne Gilson called “the metaphysics of Moses,” the primary thesis of which is, ego eimi Ho On—“I am He Who Is. Christians understand this declaration to mean that God is the unique, eternal, personal, and necessary Being, the One who, if He does exist, must exist. (This is a human way of speaking, of course. Even when we use the word “being” with respect to God, it is an apophatic expression; it means, “God can’t not-exist.”)
This is an entirely biblical idea, and it marks a new idea on the face of the earth. The God “whose being is to be” never entered the mind of classical philosophy. Neither Plato nor Aristotle nor any classical philosopher identified God in such terms. This God is not an abstraction, “being” as impersonal. This God is IHWH, in Greek Ho On, “He who is.” This God is not the neuter to Hen (“the One”) of Plotinus.
Thursday, April 27
1 Peter 3:13-22: To be baptized into Christ is to be associated with His sufferings. As Christ was victorious over death by His Resurrection, so will be those who belong to Him. Baptism, because it unites believers with the Resurrection of Christ, is a pledge and promise of their own victory over death.
In verses 18-22 Peter speaks of Christ’s descent into hell, which took on so pronounced an emphasis in Christian faith and worship that it became an article in the Nicene Creed. Peter says that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The relationship of Christian Baptism to the Flood and Noah’s Ark, found here explicitly for the first time, became a common trope in Christian biblical exegesis:
“Righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the Deluge, that is, with his own wife, with his three sons, and with their three wives, all of them being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, whereon Christ appeared when He rose from thee dead, first in power forever. For Christ, being the firstborn of every creature, became again the head of another race regenerated by Himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of Cross, even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode upon the waters with his family” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 138).
“Just as the waters of the Deluge, by which the old iniquity was purged—after the baptism of the world, so to speak—a dove became the herald announcing to thee earth the softening of the heavenly wrath, when she had been sent away out of the Ark, and had returned carrying the olive branch, a sign that even among the pagans signifies peace, so by the selfsame law of the heavenly dispensation, there flies to the earth—that is to say, our flesh—as it emerges from the font, having put away its old sins, the dove of the Holy Spirit, bringing us the peace of God, sent forth from heaven, where is the Church, typified by the Ark” (Tertullian, On Baptism 8).
Friday, April 28
1 Peter 4:1-11: Once gain the Apostle turns to the theme of Christ’s sufferings (cf. 2:21-24; 3:18) in order to draw out the practical implications of the Cross in the life of Christians (verse 1). Considering the Passion of Christ, believers are to arm themselves (hoplisasthe with “the same way thinking” (ennoian). That is to say, they are to take the remembrance of Christ’s sufferings as the guide to their thoughts and sentiments.
The Apostle Paul taught the same thing: “Let this mind be in you (touto phroneite) which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Such a one, first of all gives up the life of sin (verses 2-4). Otherwise he betrays the Cross, which paid the price of those sins. Similarly, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:2-6).
The Apostle John was just as clear on the subject: “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him” (1 John 3:6).
Since our past lives, says Peter, have been wasted with the passions and interests of men, let us spend our remaining days serving the will of God, because whoever “has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”
The life of the baptized person is turned away from the activities of yesterday. Peter spells out these activities lewdness, drinking sessions, and wild partying.
It is true that we gained friends amidst such activity in former times, but they are the very ones who will find our new way of life so puzzling and incomprehensible: “In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you.” Peter takes it for granted that conversion to Christ will mean the end of some such friendships. The believer will have much less in common with his former drinking buddies. He won’t like their lewd jokes any more, and perhaps they will no longer like him. In such situations, Peter sends us to the Cross.