Friday, November 30

Psalms 140 (Greek & Latin 139): With some exceptions, the psalms are generally not to be recited very fast. Indeed, the structure of some of them shows that considerable care has been taken to slow the pace down. There is a pronounced disposition to say many things twice or more, for instance, so that the mind is not permitted to race on to the next idea right away.

The present may serve to illustrate this extensive characteristic. The Psalmist could have written, very simply, “Lord, Your knowledge of me is total.” This brief statement would have said, in essence, what the first strophe of this psalm does say: “Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thoughts from afar. You encompass my paths and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. A word is not yet on my tongue, but You know it already.”

Here, instead of one verb to describe God’s knowledge of the heart, the author uses six. He wants to dwell on the thought; he is not anxious to leave it. He wants the conviction to sink deeply into his soul that God knows him through and through, so he comes at the idea from a variety of angles and aspects—search and know, sitting down and rising up and lying down, paths and ways, thoughts and words.

The psalm continues in the same vein: “You have beset me behind and before and laid Your hand upon me.” He is not content to say that this idea is transcendent; he must say it twice: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain to it.”

Because God’s knowledge of us is complete, it is impossible to escape His gaze. Once again, the poet uses several lines to meditate on this fact, moving in several directions, as it were: “If I ascend to heaven [up!], You are there. If I make my bed in the netherworld [down!], behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning [east!] and dwell at the uttermost parts of the sea [west!], even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand hold me.”

Here we are, ten verses into the psalm, and so far there is only a single idea. The poet is still not finished with it, however. He now switches from space imagery to symbolisms of light: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me,’ even the night will be a light around me. Yea, the darkness hides me not from You, but the night shines as the day; to You the darkness and the night are both alike.” Once again, he has repeated the same motif several times. God’s knowledge of our hearts is not an idea that he is disposed to let go of.

December 1

Luke 19:28-40: The journey motif in Luke now arrives at its climax. Jesus enters Jerusalem, towards which His whole ministry, as narrated by Luke, has been tending by providential necessity.

Luke’s story is dominated by the image of Jerusalem. It begins (1:9) and ends (24:52-53) and ends in Jerusalem (a feature that explains why Luke includes no appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee, which are mentioned in all three of the other Gospels).

Jesus has now arrived in that city where human redemption is to be accomplished, the “redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38).

Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the east, from the Mount of Olives (verse 29). This is the mountain on which He will soon be tried in the garden(22:39) and from which He will, at the end of Luke, ascend into heaven (24:50). The climax of the Lukan journey motif, then, comes on a mountain.

At Bethany (from which He is pictured both as going into Jerusalem and going into heaven), which is on the east side of the Mount of Olives, Jesus is about two miles east of Jerusalem. The village of Bethphage is closer to the top of the Mount of Olives, 2673 feet above sea level.

The Lord chooses a donkey, not a destrier, for His entry into the Holy City (verse 30), signifying that He comes peacefully, not as a conqueror (cf. Genesis 49:11; 1 Kings 1:38; Zechariah 9:9). He is, after all, the rightful king of this city.

The chant with which He is accompanied (verse 38) comes from Psalm 118 (Greek and Latin 117), the last of the Hallel Psalms (113-118 [112-117]), which will soon be chanted in full near the end of the Passover Seder. (Perhaps in consideration of his Gentile readers, Luke omits the word Hebrew word “Hosanna.”)

It is also the psalm of Easter. Still bearing in His flesh the wounds of the Passion, the risen Jesus comes to His Church in the vibrancy of His conquest over sin, Satan, and death: “I called on the Lord in distress; He answered me and set me in a broad place. . . . All nations surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me, but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me like bees; they were quenched like a fire of thorns; for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. You pushed me violently that I might fall, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation.”

Sunday, December 2

Luke 19:41—20:8: Jesus, upon entering Jerusalem, immediately began to behave as though the place belonged to Him. Right after his triumphal entry into the city with the acclamations of the crowd, he proceeded to purge the Temple and then curse the fig tree. All of this was an exercise of “authority” (exsousia).

The rejoicing hymnody of the Entry scene suddenly turns to lamentation. In foretelling Jerusalem’s conquest by the Romans in the present verses, Jesus uses the language employed by the prophet Jeremiah when he foretold the earlier downfall of that city to the Babylonians (Jeremiah 6:6,13-14,17,21; 7:11). We recall that in Luke’s narrative this is the first time that Jesus has seen Jerusalem since His temptation in 4:9. All through His ministry, however, Jesus’ thought and intent have been directed to Jerusalem (Luke 9:31,51,53; 13:22,33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11,28). Now He “sees” it and weeps (verse 41). Since Luke does not often portray the emotions of Jesus, this detail is especially striking.

In verse 42 the underlying Semitic word for “peace,” shalom, is part of the root of the city’s own name Jerusalem (cf. Hebrews 7:1-2).

The details of the siege in verse 43 are quite identical to the Romans’ treatment of Jerusalem just prior to its downfall. This fact, however, is not especially significant, inasmuch as all besieged cities are besieged in pretty much the same way, and Jerusalem had been besieged many times.

The reason given for Jerusalem’s coming destruction is identical with the reason given for the city’s earlier destruction at the hands of the Babylonians—namely, its failure to recognize the hour of the visitation of divine grace. The removal of one stone from atop another is a description of its “unbuilding” (cf. Haggai 2:15).

The story of Jesus’ entry into the Temple (vv .45-48) take us back to the first time He went to the Temple (2:40-50). His purging of the Temple here is a partial fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy in 2:34. It is also, of course, a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi 3:1-2.

Luke does not, like Mark, specify that this purging of the Temple took place on Monday. It is peculiar to Luke, however, that Jesus’ action prepares the Temple to become a place appropriate for His teaching, which follows immediately (verse 47).

Monday, December 3

Luke 20:20-40: Among the features that make up the “teaching style” of our Savior, one of the more notable is His refusal to let His hearers and interlocutors define the terms of discussion. It is one of the ways in which He makes it clear that the Gospel is more than simply an answer to a human question. The Good News eludes all attempts to restrict it to a human concern. Jesus sees to this.

For instance, our Lord frequently responds to a question by posing a counter-question. In some cases the latter device is simply rhetorical. Sometimes, however, the Lord’s counter-question alters the direction and raises the level of the conversation.

The most dramatic example of this phenomenon, I suppose, is the incident involving “spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor.” In hopes of attaining this goal, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

The questioners here feel they can hardly fail: If the answer is yes, then Jesus will be perceived as taking the side of the Roman overlord. If the answer is no, then He is subject to arrest as a revolutionary.

The Lord recognizes the intent of this question, which is about as subtle as Mount McKinley. He requests the questioners to show the proper coin of the tax. This request accomplishes two things: First, it suggests that Jesus Himself does not have such a coin (cf. Matthew 17:24-27). Second, it proves that the questioners do have the coin in question, thus demonstrating their hypocrisy in initiating the interrogation. If Jesus were interested in simply putting these hypocrites to shame, the entire discussion could reasonably end right here.

It is at this point, however, that Jesus asks His counter-question: “Whose image and inscription does it have?” The image on the coin is, in fact, essential to the discussion, and this in two ways: First, the emperor’s image on the coin is what renders it objectionable: It violates the prohibition against images. Second, the image indicates the coin’s basic significance: It belongs to Caesar. That is to say, Jesus does not evade the question about paying taxes to Caesar; He answers it, and the answer is yes!

At the same time, however, the Lord elevates the discussion above the limits of the original question. He uses the latter to distinguish between the relative and legitimate claims of the State and the absolute claims of God.

This dominical distinction, which was always at least implicit in the Prophets, thus provides a practical norm in the Christian life. While remaining radically faithful to God, Christians are to support and give their allegiance to the government Providence has placed over them. The debt they owe to the State is not optional. Sharing in the economic and political benefits the State provides, they are under a stern moral obligation to bolster, maintain, and provide for it.

Tuesday, December 4

Luke 20:41—21:4: As His enemies, frustrated by Jesus’ answers to them hitherto, are not disposed to confront Him any further, the Lord Himself takes the initiative (verse 41). ??Jesus’ question with respect to the meaning of Psalm 110 (109) serves to introduce all Christian exegesis of that psalm. Because of Jesus’ question about this psalm, Christians learned from the words “The Lord said to my Lord” that Jesus is not only David’s descendent but also his pre-existing Lord. He is the Son, not only of David, but also of God.

Having mysteriously addressed the identity of Christ, this same line of the same psalm goes on to speak of his triumph and enthronement, with the solemn proclamation: “Sit at My right hand.” These majestic words were quoted in the first sermon of the Christian Church, that of Pentecost morning at the third hour (cf. Acts 2:34), and became the foundation of some of the most important Christological and soteriological statements of the New Testament (cf. Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2.).

In this one line of the psalm, then, Christians profess in summary form those profound doctrines at the foundation of our whole relationship to God, the eternal identity of Jesus Christ, His triumph over sin and death, and His glorification at God’s right hand: “God . . . has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, . . . who . . , when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high . . .” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

The rest of the psalm follows from that context. It goes on immediately to speak of those who oppose the triumph of Christ: “‘. . . till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ The Lord shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion. Rule in the midst of Your enemies.”

Once again, in the writings of the New Testament these few words were quoted to lay the basis for the Christian interpretation of history and eschatology (cf. Acts 2:35f, 36 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:22; Heb. 10:12, 13; and perhaps 1 Pet. 3:22).

In the present Lukan passage, then, Jesus is doing more than biblical exegesis. The “enemies” in the psalm are implicitly identified with those very interlocutors who have been engaged in questioning Jesus with malice and foul intent.

In the final scene of this section, Jesus directs attention to a poor widow whom He saw casting her last two coins into the treasury. Jesus knew that these two small pieces of change were the sum of this poor widow’s assets (pace Rudolph Bultmann who doubted how Jesus could possibly have known this!). Therefore it is significant that she gave both of them, holding back nothing for herself.

For Jesus this latter fact became a point of contrast between the widow and the wealthier benefactors of the temple. Our Lord’s reaction was typical of Him, nor was this the only occasion on which He took compassion on a widow (cf. Luke 7:11–17). Indeed, He was obviously fond of an old story of a strikingly similar widow who likewise sacrificed her last resources to advance God’s cause (1 Kings 17:8–16; Luke 4:25–26).

Wednesday, December 5

Luke 21:5-24: Comparing Luke with Matthew and Mark, we observe that he changes the locale of this discourse of the Lord, placing it inside the Temple itself. Also, unlike Mark, Luke makes this an open and public speech, not a private one. ??Luke’s version of this discourse especially stresses that Christians must not speculate about, nor anticipate, specific times and dates regarding the plans and purposes of God in the world. They must simply hold on until the times of the nations be fulfilled.

Revelation 9:1-12: The first four trumpets produced plagues that resembled the seventh, first, and ninth plagues of Egypt (Exodus 9:22-26; 7:20-21; 10:21). These plagues, prompted by the trumpets, affect only the physical and astrophysical world, not human beings—at least not directly. The final three, described by the heavenly eagle as “woes,” afflict mankind directly (8:13).

The image of a fallen star already appeared in 8:10-11. Now another star falls in response to the fifth trumpet (verse 1; cf. Isaiah 14:12-20). This star opens the bottomless pit, from which arises a hellish smoke (verse 2; cf. 8:12) that contrasts with the incense smoke of prayer. The abyss represents existence without the worship of God — the theological term for which is “hell.” As John watches, a massive swarm of locusts takes form within that hellish cloud (verse 3), reminiscent of Egypt’s eighth plague (Exodus 10:12-15). Unlike those former locusts, however, these locusts attack men themselves, not plant life (verse 4). Their activity is limited to five months, which is roughly the normal life span of locusts.

Indeed, this may be the only feature in which these particular locusts in Revelation resemble any other locusts in the world. These are not your usual, run-of-the-mill locusts (verses 8-10). They are satanic locusts, denizens of the abyss, who afflict men with despair. They deceptively have human faces (verse 7), but they represent a worse than human evil. Their king is called “Abaddon,” which is the Old Testament’s personification of the underworld, or grave. It literally means “destruction” (cf. Job 26:6; 31:12). John translates this name into Greek as Apollyon, meaning “destroyer” (verse 11).

It is possible that John intends here a word play on the name “’Apollo,” which name, according to Aeschylus (Agamemnon 1082), comes from the verb apoluein, “to destroy.” We may bear in mind, in this respect, that the Emperor Domitian, not a man easily outdone, it must be said, with respect to a high self-opinion, proclaimed himself a manifestation of Apollo. (There is simply no evil as evil as official, government-sanctioned evil.) The torture inflicted by these followers of Abaddon is spiritual, not physical, and the Christians, sealed with the sign of the Living God, are exempt from it.

Thursday, December 6

Luke 21:25-38: Having treated of the downfall of Jerusalem without attaching to it a note of eschatological immediacy, Luke now turns to speak of the Lord’s return, when “until the times of the nations has been fulfilled” (verse 24).??The assertion that Jesus Christ is the meaning of history implies that he it is who will bring history to a close.

The Lord’s return at the end of time is so integral and necessary a part of the Christian faith that the First Council of Nicaea, in 325, enshrined it in the Nicene Creed. ??We observe that the language of verses 25-26 draws heavily from the biblical prophets (cf. Isaiah 13:9-10; 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23-26; Amos 8:9; Micah 1:3-4).

The expression “your redemption is nigh” (verse 28) is found only in Luke. Indeed, among the four gospels the Greek word for redemption, apolytrosis, is found only in this place. Luke, often a companion of Paul in his travels, had doubtless heard the Apostle to the Gentiles use this word many times (cf. Romans 3:24; 8:23; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:7,14; 4:30; Colossians 1:14).

Revelation 9:13-21: To the citizens of the Roman Empire the Euphrates River was a symbol analogous to the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War era, that is, a border beyond which the enemy world lay massively in menace (verse 14). The enemy in their case was the Parthian army, whose most memorable feature was its cavalry of archers. Guiding their mounts with their knees, and thus leaving both hands free, those fearsome Parthian horsemen could shoot arrows very quickly in all directions, including to the rear. This is perhaps the point of reference for John’s image of horses that bite with both their mouths and their tails (verse 19). By such means, says John, God will further chastise those who persecute His people.

Many details of this vision evoked by the sixth trumpet have striking parallels in Ezekiel 38-39. Fierce as it was, however, the Parthian army was never as fearsome as that described by John (verses 17-18). This is the army of hell, whose immense reserves are superior to all merely human forces. The number given by John, “two hundred million” (verse 16), would certainly constitute the largest army ever assembled. To gain something of its magnitude, we may bear in mind that Alexander the Great captured everything from the Danube to the Indus with an army of a hundred thousand.

The army that John sees, like the army of locusts summoned by the previous trumpet, comes right out of hell. Both these invaders, the locusts and the horsemen, are sent to encourage men to repentance, but men’s hearts, like the heart of Pharaoh, are hardened. The idolatries listed in verse 20 are the root of the other moral evils listed in verse 21. This relationship of idolatry to moral evil is identical to that in Romans 1:21-32 and Ephesians 5:6.

Friday, December 7

Revelation 10:1-11: Just as there was a double interrupting narrative immediately prior to the opening of the seventh seal, so a pair of visions will now precede the sounding of the seventh trumpet: the angel holding the little scroll, and the two faithful witnesses.

In the first of these, John is struck by the angel’s numinous character, at once bright and obscure. The angel’s body is clothed in a cloud, reminiscent of the cloud of the divine presence during ancient Israel’s desert journey and the cloud associated with the tabernacle of the divine presence. The face of the angel, on the other hand, has the luminosity of the sun. Nonetheless, the very fierceness of his countenance is tempered by the rainbow arching over his head, a reminder of the eternal covenant between God and creation in Genesis 9. The angel’s legs are pillars of fire, an image also reminiscent of the Exodus. His voice is like the roaring of a lion (verse 3), which is echoed by the seven thunders from Psalm 29 (Greek and Latin 28).

With one foot on the earth, one foot on the sea, and his hand into the air, the angel touches, as it were, all three aspects of physical creation: solid, liquid, and gas (verse 5). Moreover, all three of these components are mentioned in his oath (verse 6; Exodus 20:4,11), in which he swears that God’s secret purpose (to mysterion) in history will not be delayed of fulfillment.

The scroll the angel holds is smaller than the scroll in Chapter 5, a detail suggesting that its message may be less universal. Indeed, the message of that scroll is not directed to the world, but to the community of faith (verses 8-11). It is not read but eaten; John absorbs its message into himself. He assimilates the Word that he might then give expression to it. In this respect he imitates the prophet Ezekiel (2:9—3:4).

Psalms 17 (Greek & Latin 16): When Jesus took up Isaac’s wood on His shoulders, and became the paschal lamb, and made atonement for sins, and gave His life for His brethren, and suffered opprobrium, and was pierced with a spear, and all the rest—in doing all these things, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). All of the Hebrew Bible consists of prophetic words about Jesus, for the sake of which He adhered to the “hard ways.”

And just what were those hard ways to which our Lord adhered for the sake of God’s words? They were the hard ways of obedience to the Father’s will, for “He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). St. Paul, about two decades after Holy Friday, quoted a line from a very primitive hymn of the Church, according to which Christ “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).

It was in His Passion, then, that Jesus was put to the trial, and this is one of those psalms expressing His supplication to the Father in that setting. Jesus suffered and died in the divine service, committing His entire destiny into the Father’s hand: “You have proved my heart; You have visited me in the night. You have tried me with fire, nor was wickedness found within me.”

As this last line shows, the prayer of Jesus was that of a righteous man. Indeed, this psalm so stresses this quality of righteousness that no other member of the human race could pray this psalm in such literal truth. Jesus says to the Father: “Attend to My righteousness, O Lord; give heed to my supplication. Hear my prayer from lips that are not deceitful. Let my judgment come forth from Your face, and let mine eyes behold uprightness.”

Becoming “in all things . . . like His brethren” (Heb. 2:17), Jesus prays for the Father’s protection in words that we are correct and prompt to make our own: “Manifest the wonders of Your mercy, O You that save those who hope on You. But from those who resist Your right hand, guard me as the apple of Your eye. In the shelter of Your wings will You hide me, from the presence of the godless who oppress me.”

Himself sinless, God’s Son became one with us in our fallen humanity, knowing fear and dread, but likewise trusting in God as a man. He assumed all that we are, in order that we, by Him, may be partakers of who He is.