Friday, October 12

Galatians 1:1-10: In his two earlier epistles—to the Thessalonians—Paul was content to identify himself simply as “Paul.” With Galatians, however, Paul started identifying himself as “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ,” sometimes with the addition of “by the will of God.”

This designation is emphatic in the case of Galatians, where he begins, “Paul, an apostle, not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead . . .” The point of Paul’s insistence here is that his connection to Jesus is immediate—“that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught but through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Ezra 9: In this chapter Ezra has been living in Jerusalem for four months, during which time he had been busy in a variety of pressing matters. He had conveyed a great deal of wealth to Jerusalem and had done so, in fact, without armed guard. Along the way he had recruited more Levites to augment the Levitical staff at the temple, which at this time was fifty-seven years old. The journey itself had lasted from April 8 to August 4 of the year 458 (7:9).

Therefore, the events of this chapter, four months later, occurred in late December of that year; it was a dreary rainy season (10:9), the sort of atmosphere that might depress the human spirit anyway.

This was not a good time for bad news, but bad news is just what Ezra received. He learned of a serious spiritual problem in Jerusalem, the widespread intermarriage of priests with non-Jews, a thing unthinkable among the Jews back in Babylon.

Ezra did not take the news calmly (verse 3). He prepared himself to deal with the problem, but he would not address the people about it until he had taken it up with the Lord. He made his prayer with uplifted hands at the time of the vesperal sacrifice (verse 5), at which it was usual to pray with uplifted hands (cf. Psalms 141 [140]:2).

We should especially note in his prayer that he did not separate himself from this sin of the people, even though he himself had not committed it; the sin pertained to “us” (verses 6,7,10,13,15). Ezra was an effective intercessor, in part because of this solidarity he maintained with those for whom he prayed.

Saturday, October 13

Galatians 1:11-24: Paul turns to autobiography, reminding his readers how he started as a seriously observant Jew—even to the level of persecuting Christians. However, this all stopped, says Paul, “when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me.”

Although Paul was certainly not the first Christian convert, he was the first to write about his conversion. Christian literary reflection did not begin with the biography of Jesus but with the testimony of a believer’s internal and existential conviction.

Even though Paul—as far as we can determine—never knew Jesus “in the days of his flesh,” he considered his knowledge of the Savior not one whit inferior to that of the original apostolic band. The defense of his ministry rested on an immediate, conscious, and existential certainty; it was inseparable from the transformation of his mind, initiated “when it pleased God . . . to reveal His Son in me.” It was this “God and Father” who inwardly drew Paul to Jesus as His Son. Therefore, Jesus could say to Paul—as he said to Peter—“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). Jesus enunciated the principle involved in this revelation: “No one can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him” (John 6:44).

Ezra 10: Word got out, evidently, that Ezra’s spirit was disturbed, because he found quite a crowd of distressed people waiting for him when his prayer was over (verse 1). What ensues in this chapter is best ascribed to what must have been the singular moral stature and authority of Ezra. It was surely not the “mob psychosis” that one modern commentator ascribes to the scene. The dynamics had to do, rather, with the towering moral presence of Ezra himself, standing forth among the people, fortified by his fasting and his prayer on their behalf.

He was thus able to persuade them to take steps deeply repugnant to very deep instincts and warmly cherished preferences. From a concern for the purity of Israel’s faith, he was able to convince them to relinquish their wives and children. He did not do this, moreover, in an impassioned or imperious tone. On the contrary, his words to the people were more restrained than the words he used when speaking to God.

All the returned exiles were gathered at Jerusalem for a “command appearance” (verses 7-9), assembling in the rain, cold, wet, and doubtless a bit discouraged. Ezra then read them the riot act. Under this barrage of rain and prophetic invective, the men became cooperative. Understandably, nonetheless, their moral situation, their “case of conscience,” was more than slightly complicated, involving many details that could not be settled immediately (verse 13). Consequently, a commission was established to work out the particulars associated with the dissolution of all those marriages.

It is reasonable to assume that the work of the commission had to do with the disposition of property claims and rights of inheritance. In those days, after all, couples did not simply fall in love and get married. Pre-nuptial agreements, in the form of inter-family contracts, were the rule, not the exception. Virtually all of those marriages, therefore, involved complex financial arrangements, in the form of dowries and transferred inheritances. If the people were to conform to the strict rules laid down by Ezra, all such matters had to be adjusted. In the lengthy list of the offenders (verses 18-44), we observe many family names that we saw in the census record in the second chapter.

Sunday, October 14

Psalms 111 (Greek & Latin 112): This psalm has long been associated in the West with Sunday evenings. For reasons easily perceived in various lines of the psalm, this is a time most appropriate. It is especially fitting, for example, that on Sunday evening we should sing out: “He has sent redemption unto His people; He has commanded His covenant forever. Holy and awesome is His name.”

Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, is also the day on which the People of God partake of the Lord’s Body and Blood, of which this psalm declares, “The merciful and compassionate Lord made memorial of His wonders—He gave food to those who fear Him; He shall forever be mindful of His covenant (diatheke).” This is the covenant food of His Body and Blood as the perpetual memorial of the wonders of His saving work on our behalf and for our benefit. Truly, “He has sent redemption unto His people.”

Ultimately, of course, this liturgical “remembrance” is God’s more than ours. Indeed, our own remembrance would count for nothing except for God’s. As our psalm says, “He shall forever be mindful of His covenant.” This same Lord, who looks at the rainbow and thereby remembers His eternal covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:13–16), looks likewise upon His people as they fulfill His eucharistic mandate in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. God looks, and God “remembers.”

Nehemiah 1: Nehemiah’s mission is easy to date. It began in the twentieth year of the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes I (465-425), therefore 445 (verse 1). The month was December. This book is mainly a collection of Nehemiah’s own memoirs.

Nehemiah is called the royal cup-bearer, but this term should not make us think of a simple domestic servant. That bearing of the cup at the king’s table was but the symbolic function of an individual of great important in the realm. The term “royal chamberlain” comes closer to the more recent idiom, for this was no menial position. In the Persian art of the period the cup-bearer ranked second, right after the crown prince, in the gradations of the royal court. Archeology demonstrates that sometimes cup-bearers were buried in the same crypts as the emperor’s own family. Nehemiah the Jew, then, was a high official of the realm, the ancient equivalent to our “prime minister” or “secretary of state.” All important business with the crown passed through his hands.

One day some fellow Jews came to see Nehemiah (verses 2-3) with the sad news that local opposition, evidently implementing an official decree, had put a stop to the construction of the walls around the city of Jerusalem. It is impossible that the highly placed Nehemiah did not know this already, but the first-hand report gave him a strong new impression of the full tragedy of the situation. It threw him into a depression for days, a depression accompanied by fasting and prayer (verse 4).

The lengthy confession that follows is our first example of Nehemiah in prayer; we will have frequent occasion to observe this recourse to prayer as an habitual and sustained practice on his part. Nehemiah’s prayer in the present case (verses 5-11) is full of Deuteronomic vocabulary, a characteristic shared with other late books of the Old Testament, such as Ezra and Daniel. Nehemiah based all his hope on God’s fidelity to Israel, manifested during the Babylonian Captivity. Such prayers may be described as doxologies of judgment. As in the prayer in Ezra 9 (and later on in Nehemiah 9 and in Daniel 9:4-19), this prayer identified Nehemiah with the people for whom it was offered.

Monday, October 13

Nehemiah 2: Fortified by prayer and fasting, Nehemiah prepared to argue his case before the king. He bided his time until the following spring, during Nisan, the month of the Passover. Doubtless Nehemiah was waiting for the most opportune and advantageous moment, watching the movement of government, carefully observing the emperor’s moods and attitudes.

He resolved finally to display his feelings; it was not an inadvertent dropping of his guard, but a calculated move (verse 1), and the emperor, as expected, noticed (verse 2). There was a sudden tense moment, because Persian emperors liked to be surrounded by happy, healthy faces (cf. Daniel 1:10-13!). Nehemiah stated the matter quickly and succinctly, for Persian emperors were also efficient men, not famous for their patience. In addition, they were notoriously fickle and capricious (cf. Esther 4:11).

Nehemiah knew all this, and even while he spoke to Artaxerxes, he continued to speak to God in his heart (verse 4). As always, his brief prayer was efficacious, because he managed to make his complaint without criticizing either the emperor or anyone in the Persian government.

Nehemiah was ever the consummate diplomat, schooled in all the arts of a large, international court. Throughout this book we shall find him playing a cool, deft hand, maintaining strict control over the cards held close to his chest. In every instance we shall see him disclosing only as much information as was needed to accomplish what he had in mind. If anyone wants to witness what it means to be as cunning as a serpent (which Jesus our Lord commands us to be), he will discover no better example than Nehemiah.

For example, we readers of this memoir will know that everything Nehemiah did was done on the authority of a private imperial edict that was handed to him, but we will also observe that he never permitted his enemies to know this. That is to say, he did not show his cards. His opponents would always be obliged to guess what hand he was holding, so they would be ever acting in the dark. Nehemiah knew very well that a privately issued instruction could always be privately withdrawn, so he was extremely careful not to let that happen. His opponents could never challenge something which they were not even sure existed! Nehemiah preferred to bluff his way through, laying down a card here and there, taking up another, never showing his hand. He kept his winning hand intact. Thus, we will observe that he never spent all his force on a single confrontation. There was ever more in his reserve.

In the present scene, for example, Nehemiah only answered the emperor’s question. He made no request until the king explicitly asked for one, and we observe that the request, made at precisely the moment when it should have been made, was immediately granted. Similarly, Nehemiah did not disclose, even in this memoir, how much time he had at his disposal to complete the project (verse 6). Armed with papers of authorization, he crossed the Euphrates and cleared his mission with the satrapy authorities in the area (verses 7-10). When he arrived at Jerusalem, no public information was available to his opponents. Hearsay, of course, would reveal that he came from the capital. Certainly everyone knew his high standing in the Persian Empire. He lay low, nonetheless, for three days (verse 11), keeping the opposition off-guard, letting their discomfort mount, but without saying anything. Their growing curiosity and impatience would work to his advantage, and he knew it. Then, in the deepest secrecy, he made a quiet, nocturnal inspection of the city, riding on a sure-footed donkey around the ruins of the walls, an inspection recorded in this memoir in minute detail. We may call it The Midnight Ride of Nehemiah (verses 12-16).

Encouraged by this inspection, he summoned the proper people to promote public interest in the project (verses 17-18), while his opponents, learning of it only by rumor, were reduced to mere reaction (verses 19-20). Questioned on the matter, Nehemiah spoke only of trust in God. He breathed not a word about the papers in his breast pocket, leaving his opposition to guess and blunder.

Tuesday, October 16

Luke 8:19-25: Unlike the later dogmatic formulas of the church councils, the
apostolic writings tend—generally speaking—to speak of Jesus in narrative and existential terms; they are descriptive, most often, of the actual experience of believers when they gaze at the living Jesus.

Here we gaze at a man worn out from long hours of travel and labor, slumped asleep on the stern sheets of a fishing boat, which is being violently tossed all over the place by a fierce and dangerous storm. We behold this man’s sailing companions, desperately struggling to keep the vessel afloat. They yell to the sleeper over the roar of the wind, to wake up, please, and do something about the situation.

We see the sleeper wake up, glance around him, and then, addressing the wind and the waves, robustly tell them, in plain Aramaic, “Hey, knock it off!” The storm stops abruptly. Finally, the others in the boat look at one another
And—understandably—inquire, “Who can this be?”

Fair question! Who, indeed? That is to say, even to those who knew him best and watched him do what he did, Jesus was a sustained source of mystification, and it is to our advantage that we ever bear in mind it is from them—those questioners—and them alone, that we know anything at all about Jesus. Every single thing we know, we know on apostolic testimony. We must forswear any
attempt to understand Jesus better than the apostles did.

Nehemiah 3: This chapter describes the organized building of the wall, a task that could only be undertaken while the opposing party was caught off-guard, uncertain of its authorization.

From the beginning of the Book of Ezra, we have seen numerous examples of the resistance of the native population of the Holy Land, those who had not gone into exile. That opposition expressed their resentment at being excluded from the inheritance of Israel, and now, in the Book of Nehemiah, we observe that their resentment has not abated. It is grown stronger, rather, over the ensuing decades. It will greatly increase with Nehemiah’s construction of the city walls. More than any other project, those walls symbolized their exclusion from Israel.

Nehemiah had already arranged for the building material in 2:8; by late summer they were ready to start. For a man accustomed to dealing with the administration of an empire that stretched from the Khyber Pass to Macedonia, the modest organization required for this work was hardly much of a challenge.

Sections of the wall were apportioned to various families, villages, and professions. Nehemiah’s distribution of the work was not only an efficient use of the labor force, it also subtly encouraged rivalry among the builders, each team endeavoring to surpass the efforts of the others. (Some commentators have also observed the curious similarities of this description to the wall construction of Themistocles in Thucydides, History 1:89. There should be nothing surprising in this similarity. There are only so many ways to build a wall.)

Five of the building groups were composed of families listed in Ezra 2, while several others were based on various localities in the region. Merchant groups (verse 32) and certain guilds were also represented, such as apothecaries and goldsmiths (verse 8). The entire organization bore no slight resemblance to an urban softball league, in which various merchants or other organizations sponsored the different teams. The various teams of builders appear to be listed counterclockwise around the city wall. The priestly team, not unexpectedly, consecrated the parts of their sections as they were finished.

Wednesday, October 17

Luke 8:26-39: The storm on the lake is now followed by another storm, this time in the human soul. Jesus handles this one with the same serenity, composure, and command.

Nehemiah 4: Meanwhile the frustrated opposition party was holding an impromptu powwow about what to do next (verses 1-2). Sanballat was aware that the emperor had forbidden the building of the walls, but here was the highest non-royal official in the realm, with full knowledge and cooperation of the governing satrap, doing that very thing. The situation left him angry and confused. He dared not complain to the capital, of course, because Persian monarchs tended to react in dangerous ways if stimulated by incautious questioning (cf. Ezra 6:11), to say nothing of deliberate provocation (cf. Esther 7:10). Nehemiah was completely familiar with the workings of the court, whereas Sanballat and the opposition folks were just a bunch of yokels. They found themselves now completely out of their political depth.

Their frustration could be expressed only in ridicule (verse 3), but their mirth rang hollow, because the wall in question was growing huge. Dr. Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations show it to have been 2.75 meters thick—roughly nine feet—and in Chapter 12 we will read of a lengthy dedicatory procession conducted on top of the wall!

Since Sanballat’s people could do nothing in the open, their opposition took the form of surprise raids by small gangs. The list of opponents in verse 7 indicates that Jerusalem was literally surrounded by enemies. There follows (verses 13-23) an account of how the builders, like Minute Men, simultaneously prayed and defended themselves during the construction. Verse 10 seems to be a snatch of a song that they sang while working.

Much of this chapter is resonant with the themes and vocabulary of Israel’s ancient warfare stories from the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges: the threat of the enemies (verses 7-8), the strategic disadvantage of Israel (verses 10,13), the preliminary prayer before arming (verse 9), the arrangement of the forces by families (verse 13), the declaration of divine help (verse 20), the summons to bravery and fidelity (verse 14), the Lord’s frustration of the enemies (verse 15), and the bugle call to battle (verses 18-19).

Thursday, October 18

Galatians 4:1-11: In our consideration of what it means to be a human being, there is some wisdom in starting at the end: What can a human being become? We should start with eschatology. We should commence with “the fullness of time.” It is this “fullness of time,” which fulfills all things within time, that must serve to interpret everything human, including philosophy.

Exactly what, then, has occurred “in the fullness of time”? As it happens this very question is addressed explicitly in Holy Scripture, and it is there that I propose to start our inquiry—The Epistle to the Galatians 4:4–6:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, that he might redeem those under the Law, that we might receive sonship. And because you are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba,” “Father.”

Not least among the striking features of this text is the apostle’s use of exactly the same verb to speak of the sending forth of both the Son and the Holy Spirit. In each case he says, exsapesteilen ho Theos—“God sent forth his Son. . . . God sent forth the Spirit of his Son.” This is a summary of how we know God: We know him because he has revealed himself by his sending forth of his Son and Holy Spirit.

Nehemiah 5: This chapter, which is out of historical sequence, serves partly an apologetic purpose: Prior to narrating the attacks that his enemies were to make on his moral character, he inserts this incident (from a later time) in order to demonstrate his integrity and sense of justice. In this incident, the problem faced by Nehemiah was an internal one, the exploitation of the builders during this time of crisis. Profiteers were taking extreme advantage of the situation (verses 1-5).

Contrary to the radically selfish principles of Utilitarian, Libertarian, and Objectivist philosophies, a healthy society cannot be founded solely on private enterprise and individual rights; government has appropriate functions, after all, beyond those of the common defense, domestic safety, and the safeguarding of private property. It is also a biblically warranted function of government to discourage greed, rapacity, and the taking of undue advantage. The evil we see in this chapter indicates that ancient Jerusalem had its own equivalents of Jeremy Bentham, Ludwig Von Mises, and Ayn Rand. Unbridled greed was producing once again the social order of Cain, as described in Genesis 4.

Nehemiah faced the crisis resultant from a completely selfish atmosphere, aggravated by the extra burden of the labor on the walls and a crop failure. Loan sharks, prohibited by the Mosaic Law from taking interest, were requiring exorbitant rights of usufruct and a disproportionate collateral, which, in the end, enslaved the children dispossessed by such abuses. All of this activity, unfortunately, was within the letter of the law, a form of “legal injustice.”

Nehemiah’s first reaction was visceral (verse 6), but he gave himself time to cool down and reflect (verse 7), pondering which path might be the most effective to take. Then, skipping steps one and two in the procedure listed in Matthew 18:15-17, he jumped immediately to step three in the procedure. Since the offense was public, the confrontation would have to be public (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Nehemiah summoned a general assembly, in which to face the offenders with a larger group of people rallied on his own side. He easily reduced the offenders to silence (verses 7-8), not by appealing to the letter of the law (for the letter of the law in this instance was not on his side), still less by invoking something so nebulous as “the rights of the poor” (because the poor usually have more needs than they have rights), but by the experience of brotherhood (“your brethren”).

Having reduced the offenders to silence, he proceeded to shame them into doing the decent thing (verses 9-11). He used his office, that is to say, not to maintain the letter of the law, but to establish justice. Clearly he regarded government as responsible for setting right certain economic wrongs born of an excessive and oppressive system of private enterprise that was able to stay legal while remaining unjust. In this respect, Nehemiah was clearly acting on impulses spawned of the great social prophets three centuries earlier: Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. Those powerless men decried economic injustice, but Nehemiah, himself in a powerful position, was able to do something about it. His efforts were successful (verses 12-13).

Nehemiah stayed on at Jerusalem until 433 (verse 14), informing us that he was not a half-bad governor (verses 15-19). The next chapter will jump back to the sequence expected at the end of the incident with which the present chapter began. Having demonstrated his integrity in the present chapter, he is now ready to speak of the calumnies of his enemies.

Friday, October 19

Psalms 16 (Greek and Latin 15): We may be sure that this psalm was among the psalms interpreted to the Church by the risen Christ, for this was the first psalm that she exegeted in her very first sermon when she came rushing with power from the upper room on Pentecost. According to the Apostle Peter, who preached that sermon, this psalm describes the Resurrection of Christ:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face, / For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. / Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; / Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. / For You will not leave my soul in Hades, / Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. / You have made known to me the ways of life; / You will make me full of joy in Your presence” (Acts 2:22–28).

Even though it was King David saying these things, the voice speaking more deeply in this psalm, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy. Peter goes on to explain:

Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses (Acts 2:29–32).

Nehemiah 6: The local opposition to Nehemiah’s building project next took a new and unbelievably clumsy tack, which he resisted with high disdain (verses 1-4). Failing this, his opponents then sent a letter with an implicit threat of denunciation (verses 5-7), but Nehemiah remained unimpressed (verse 8).

The story found here in verses 10-13 is not necessarily part of the chronological sequence but may have been put here because of its affinity to the two preceding stories.

Even before Shemaiah was in the employ of his opponents, Nehemiah smelled something wrong. He sensed that he was being invited to take a step he would regret. We observe him here, nonetheless, maintaining his composure under pressure, controlling his emotions, especially the emotion of fear, so as not to obscure his assessment of the situation (verse 14).

The wall, begun in the late summer, was finished fifty-two days later, in mid October (verse 15). About six months had passed since Nehemiah’s arrival in Jerusalem, and less than a year since his friends had come with sad news to Babylon. Once again, Sanballat and his friends learned of the wall’s completion only by rumor (verse 16).