Friday, August 22

Mark 14:32-42: Quoting select Bible verses to prove a point of theology is usually, at best, a risky business, because what the Bible may say on a given subject is, as often as not, difficult to reduce to a single proposition. Let me cite the example of petitionary prayer in order to illustrate this risk and also to initiate a reflection on the subject of such prayer. 

Times out of mind we have been told by sincere Christians that the promise given by Jesus—the promise of His Father’s granting us whatsoever we ask in His name (John 16:23-24)—is absolute and “allows of no exceptions.” Some folks, citing this text, go on to remark that even the addition of “if it is Thy will” bespeaks a want of sufficient faith, inasmuch as it suggests that the person making the prayer is failing in confidence that his prayer will be answered. That is to say, a prayer containing an “if,” because it is ipso facto hypothetical, expresses an inadequate faith. What the believer should do, I have been told, is simply “name it and claim it.”

What the Bible has to say about petitionary prayer, however, is contained in many biblical verses, all of them worthy of careful regard. For example, should we say that the Apostle Paul, when he prayed three times that the Lord would remove from him the thorn in his flesh, the angel of Satan sent to buffet him (2 Corinthians 12:8), was wanting in faith because this severe affliction was not taken away?

If this was the case—if the Apostle to the Gentiles really was so deficient in personal faith—it is no wonder that he was obliged to leave Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). Poor ailing Trophimus, languishing there on his sickbed; he should have been prayed over by a person with a sounder, fuller, more unfailing faith–not that slacker Paul, a man apparently deficient in the art of naming it and claiming it.

The truth of the subject, however, is quite different. The addition, “if it is thy will,” is neither a limitation imposed on our confidence nor a restriction laid on our prayer. It expresses, rather, a constitutive feature of true prayer and an essential component of faith. The real purpose of prayer, after all, is not to inform God what we want, but to hand ourselves over more completely, in faith, to what God wants. The purpose of prayer, after all, even the prayer of petition, is living communion with God. The man who tells God, then, “Thy will be done,” does not thereby show himself a weaker believer but a stronger one.

After all, was Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” weak in faith when He added the “Thy will be done” to the petition “Take this cup from Me”? Did He not, rather, give us in this form of His petition the very essence of true prayer?

“If it is Thy will,” then, is not a limit on our trust, but an expansion of it. It does not denote a restriction of our confidence but an elevation of it. It is an elevation, because by such a prayer—“Thy will be done”—we grow in personal trust in the One who has deigned, in His love, to become our Father. Indeed, when Jesus makes this prayer in the Garden, the evangelists are careful to note exactly how He addressed God—namely, as “Father.” Indeed, they even preserve the more intimate Semitic form, “Abba.”

The “will of God” in which we place the trust of our petition is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the will of a Father whose sole motive (if this word be allowed) in hearing our prayer is to provide loving direction and protection to His children. “According to Thy will” is spoken to a Father who loves us because in Christ we have become His children.

All of this theology was contained in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, by which His own human will was united with the will of God. Jesus, in praying for the doing of God’s will, modeled for us the petition contained in the prayer that He gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. This prayer, which significantly begins with “Our Father,” goes on to plead that His will may be done.

Saturday, August 23

2 Kings 22: When Josiah was born in 648 BC, the geopolitical prospects of the Kingdom of Judah did not appear too bad, for the Assyrian Empire, which had long oppressed the area, was on the verge of the decline that would bring it down before the century’s end.

From a religious perspective, nonetheless, the situation in Judah was bad indeed. Manasseh (687–642 BC), the very wicked king who was Josiah’s grandfather, had established Canaanite and Assyrian worship in Jerusalem itself, resorting even to the sacrifice of one of his sons, an act for which he was roundly denounced (2 Kings 21:1–15). From an apocryphal work called The Ascension of Isaiah (5:1–14), we know that the atrocities of this depraved king included his causing the Prophet Isaiah to be sawn in half (cf. Hebrews 11:37). Besides the melancholy biblical account of his reign, Manasseh is mentioned several times in Assyrian records, always as a subject king of the Assyrian Empire.

Josiah was six years old when his grandfather died in 642, to be succeeded by the boy’s unpopular father, Amon (2 Kings 21:19–26; 2 Chronicles 33:21–25). When the latter was assassinated two years later, little Josiah acceded to the throne at age eight.

We know almost nothing of his early regency period, but Josiah soon became his own man. In 632, near his sixteenth birthday, he experienced a religious conversion, pointing him in a new direction. Four years later, on assuming the full powers of the throne, Josiah began a large-scale reform of the religious life of Judah, an ambitious project now rendered possible by the growing disarray of the Assyrian Empire (2 Chronicles 34:1–17). It was also in that very year that the Lord sent Jerusalem one of the greatest prophets, a young man named Jeremiah.

From a religious point of view, then, things were starting to look better.

Nonetheless, the best was yet to come. Among the features of Josiah’s reform was a thorough purging of the Jerusalem temple to rid it of all vestiges of idolatry. In 622, during the course of this work, the renovators discovered a very ancient manuscript, which historians identify as either the whole or central section of the Book of Deuteronomy. It had been lost for many years. After 622, therefore, Josiah had in hand a very specific text on which to base his continuing reform of Judah’s religious life. Point by point, he and his reformers began to implement the prescriptions of Deuteronomy (2 Chronicles 34:8–33), including the restoration of the Passover (35:1–19). For this reason, historians customarily refer to Josiah’s efforts as the Deuteronomic Reform.

Because several generations of “Deuteronomists” would continue to make that book the basis of Judah’s religious life, the ferment and effects of Josiah’s reform were to outlive the king himself. In the following century, those Deuteronomic scholars would serve as the backbone of Judah’s survival, and even flourishing, during the Babylonian Captivity. During that time of exile, it was under the impulse of Deuteronomic theology that they would edit and unify much of the historical material contained in the Bible.

(Taken from Christ in His Saints by P. H. Reardon

Sunday, August 24

2 Kings 23: The royal sponsorship of the Deuteronomic Reform came to an end in the year 609. It happened in this way: As the Prophet Nahum had foretold, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612, but a good part of the defeated army survived.

Moving north to Haran, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, this remnant continued to hold out for three years, waiting desperately for help expected from Egypt. In 609 Egypt’s new Pharaoh, Neco II, to whom it was obvious that his country’s advantage lay in stopping the rise of the

Neo-Babylonian Empire, determined to go to the aid of those Assyrians.

With some Greek mercenaries, Neco moved up into Palestine, planning to join the Assyrians at Carchemish on the Euphrates. King Josiah of Judah, however, had ideas of his own. Knowing firsthand the evils of Assyria, he decided to throw in his lot with the Babylonians, so he led the army of Judah to meet Neco’s forces at the Megiddo pass. In the ensuing battle, the great Josiah was killed at age thirty-nine (2 Kings 23; 2 Chronicles 35).

For Judah his passing was an unmitigated tragedy. From 609 until Jerusalem’s fall in 587, the throne at Jerusalem was occupied by a series of men whose political incompetence was surpassed only by their shocking moral shortcomings. Scandal was everywhere, and to many it seemed that the entire moral order was falling to pieces. The minds of thoughtful men were asking: Is the Lord a just God? Does the world that He made truly stand on a vindicating principle of righteousness? One of the minds asking such questions in 609 was the prophet Habakkuk, whose soul was rocked to its foundation by the death of Josiah.

Monday, August 25

Mark 14:66-72: It is most significant that this event–Peter’s triple denial of the Lord–so embarrassing to the chief of the Twelve Apostles, is narrated in detail in each of the four canonical Gospels, for it is thus made to stand fixed forever in the memory of Holy Church. From this story, all believers down through the ages are to learn two lessons that they must never forget.

First, anyone may fall, at any time. If Simon Peter could deny Jesus, any one of us could do so. Simon, after all, had not believed himself capable of such a thing. “Even if all are made to stumble,” he boasted, “yet I will not be” (Mark 14:29). He was so utterly resolved on the matter that, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus in the garden, Simon had attacked them with violence. Alas, he was neither the first man nor the last to confuse human excitement with divine strength, nor to mistake the pumping of adrenaline for the infusion of grace. Within a very short time after he swung his sword at the unsuspecting Malchus (cf. John 18:10), we find Peter backing down embarrassed before the pointing finger of a servant girl. The Holy Spirit took particular care that Christians throughout the ages would never forget that falling away remains a real possibility for any of them. In the words of yet another converted sinner, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Second, Christians were also to learn from this story that, as long as they are alive, repentance and a return to forgiveness are always live options. In this respect, the repentance of Simon Peter is to be contrasted with the despair of Judas. Thus, the Gospel stories tell us, until our very last breath, it is never too late to return to God in answer to the summons of His grace.

Tuesday, August 26

Psalm 6: This psalm begins with a forceful recognition of the divine wrath. It is the second time that God’s wrath is mentioned in the Book of Psalms; Psalm 2 had already spoken of God’s anger toward the rebellious. In the present psalm, however, it is the psalmist himself who fears this wrath of God and prays to be delivered from it: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chasten me in Your fierce displeasure.” Such a prayer suggests that only the grace of God can deliver us from the wrath of God.

The divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed. The wrath of God is infinitely more serious than a temper tantrum. It is a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul. In Romans, where the expression appears twelve times, the anger of God describes His activity toward the hard of heart, the unrepentant, those sinners who turn their backs and deliberately refuse His grace, and it is surely in this sense that our psalm asks to be delivered from God’s wrath. It is important to make such a prayer, because hardness of heart remains a possibility for all of us to the very day we die.

Perhaps the seriousness of such a prayer will appear more clearly if we reflect on exactly what Holy Scripture says about the divine wrath. The latter pertains, after all, to the divine revelation itself: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18, emphasis mine). God’s wrath is not something we need to guess about. It is revealed. And how revealed? “Against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” This deliberate hardness of heart, this radical recalcitrance to grace, is the sin that calls down the wrath of God. “So that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:20, 21).

Three times in this passage, the Apostle Paul pounds the point home: paredoken autous ho Theos—“God gave them up . . .” (Rom. 1:[]24, 26, 28). In this, then, consists the wrath of God: that He turns man loose, that He lets man go, hands him over, that He abandons man to his own choice of evil. The full context of this passage deserves deep reflection, because the moral evils to which God delivers the hard of heart appear to be the very vices characteristic of our own times (cf. Rom. 1:24–32). These verses describe in graphic detail exactly what happens when “God gives them up,” and no attentive reader of this text will fail to recognize in it a description of the world in which we live today.

Every deliberate and willful sin is a step in the direction of hardness of heart. Psalm 6, as a penitential psalm, takes sin very seriously. The sin spoken of here is deliberate, willful. It is not just a mistake; it is not something for which we simply apologize. It is, rather, a voluntary affront to God’s image in us. The taking away of sin required the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross. This fact itself tells us how serious is this whole business of sin.

Sin has entered deeply into human experience, and it has left human beings in a very weakened state. It is felt in our inner frame, our very bones, as it were. The psalm goes on: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled, but You, O Lord . . how long? Return, O Lord, deliver me. Oh, save me, for Your mercies’ sake.”

The psalmist then speaks of death, for by sin death entered into the world. Death is sin rendered visible. What we see death do to the body, sin does to the soul. Death is the externalizing of sin. Death is no friend. Apart from Christ, the Bible sees death as the realm where God is not praised. As the bitter fruit of sin, death is the enemy; indeed, it is the “last enemy,” says 1 Corinthians 15:26. When the psalmist, then, prays for deliverance from death, he is talking about a great deal more than a physical phenomenon. Death is the “last enemy,” the physical symbol of our sinful alienation from God: “For in death there is no memory of You; in the grave, who will give You thanks?”

Sin and death, then, form the context of this psalm, and these are the forces of Satan. Sin, death, and Satan—such are the enemies of which the psalmist speaks: “My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows old because of all my enemies. Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity. . . . Let all my enemies be ashamed and greatly troubled.”

Even as he makes this plea for mercy, nonetheless, the man of faith already knows that God hears him: “For the Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer.”

(Taken from Christ in the Psalms by P. H. Reardon)

Wednesday, August 27

Job 8: Bildad, Job’s second “comforter,” is described as coming from the ancient and well-known city of Shuah, situated on the right bank of the Euphrates, between the mouths of the Balikh and Khabur rivers, south of Carchemish. This is well to the east of the Promised Land. If it is the case that the name of this city is related to one of Abraham’s sons by Keturah (cf. Genesis 25:2; 1 Chronicles 1:32), the Israelites would certainly have regarded the city as very eastern, indeed, “eastward . . . to the country of the east” (Genesis 25:6).

Bildad (whose arguments are found in Job 8, 18, and 25) thus represents the wisdom of ancient Mesopotamia, the very culture that gave the human race the art of writing. Indeed, starting with the Sumerians, near the end of the fourth millennium before Christ, Mesopotamia is the absolute font of all literary culture.

The literary culture of ancient Mesopotamia itself was engaged in many philosophical and moral concerns, such as the origins of the world and the Great Flood. Thus, it is from this region that we have inherited the famous Sumerian and Akkadian mythologies recorded on cuneiform tablets that narrate the stories of Gilgamesh, Adapa, Nergal, and Ereshkigal. As one can see from Bildad’s own words transcribed in the biblical account, this was also a culture that meditated deeply on the shortness and vanity of human life. It does not surprise us, then, that the people of Mesopotamia reflected likewise on the afterlife and the netherworld. Indeed, several accounts of this concern have also been preserved on ancient clay tablets from this region.

Along with his persuasion that life is short and the future uncertain, Bildad was also fairly sure that people finally get what they deserve.

Job’s children, for example. One recalls that Job himself had been rather preoccupied with concern about his children, especially their moral state. His sons and daughters, born into a wealthy household, are portrayed in the Bible as uncommonly frivolous, definitely of the “partying” type. In fact, they threw a whoop-de-do every day, moving the reveling site from house to house. Job was so anxious about this incessant fun and frivolity that he commenced rising up early each morning to offer an individual sacrifice for each of his children (Job 1:5). And what happened to them? Well, sure enough, all of the revelers were wiped out simultaneously, perishing in the midst of one of their daily entertainments (2:18–19).

But this is exactly what we should have expected, Bildad reflected. People do die young, very much like papyrus reeds. “While it is yet green and not cut down, / It withers before any other plant” (8:11–12). Moreover, even as Job had suspected might be the case, Bildad speculated that those young people perhaps brought God’s wrath down on their own heads: “If your sons have sinned against Him, He has cast them away for their transgression” (8:4). This is a pretty rough thing to say to a grieving father.

On the other hand, Bildad contended, the same divine justice that punished Job’s children can also serve to sustain Job himself in the years to come: “If you would earnestly seek God / And make your supplication to the Almighty, / If you were pure and upright, / Surely now He would awake for you, / And prosper your rightful dwelling place. / Though your beginning was small, / Yet your latter end would increase abundantly. . . . He will yet fill your mouth with laughing, / And your lips with rejoicing” (8:5–7, 21). It is a point of no little irony that, whatever the shortcomings of Bildad’s moral reasoning, the end of the book does portray Job as larger and more joyous, in fact, than he was at the beginning.

Bildad’s moral reasoning, which is certainly on trial in the Book of Job, was the derived traditional experience, possessed of simple, straightforward answers learned from those who went before (8:8). His moral reasoning was very traditional, quite identical to that of the Book of Proverbs.

According to this moral reasoning, at least one thing was certain–things go very badly for bad people (cf. Job 18:5–21). When pushed further, nonetheless, Bildad was obliged to concede that there is no such thing as a completely just man. This was the burden of his final and shortest speech (25:1–6), best summarized, perhaps, by the thesis that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Like Job himself, Bildad struggles with a true moral problem. Accustomed to viewing all evil as associated with moral failing, his mind is deeply perplexed by the sight of a good man in suffering.

(Taken from Christ in His Saints by P. H. Reardon)

Thursday, August 28

Job 9: If we find Job becoming increasingly despondent through the course of this book, let us bear in mind that he is responding to friends who prove themselves increasingly obtuse and insensitive. Bildad, in his objections to Job, was far worse than Eliphaz.

Job’s response to Bildad follows the same threefold outline that we saw in his response to Eliphaz in chapters 6—7. There is a direct response (9:2–24), a soliloquy (9:25—10:1), and an address to God (10:1–22).

Ironically, in Job’s direct response, which takes up most of this chapter, he largely ignores the self-righteous ranting of Bildad. Indeed, we have the impression that Job has “tuned out” Bildad at some point and gone on to recall Eliphaz’s earlier comment (4:17) about man’s inability to be just in the sight of God.

That earlier remark of Eliphaz posed for Job a problem he addresses in the present chapter. If God’s will is that which determines justice, and there is no other measure of justice to be consulted, how does a man of clean conscience deal with the problem of suffering? (This is, of course, the great problem of theodicy. Job’s analysis of it, however, is not theoretical; he has too much personal pain for purely abstract thought.) If man is unable to perceive God as acting justly, must he not think of God as acting in anger? And how can man perceive God’s anger as just, in the absence of any condign self-accusation in his own conscience? Job knows that God is near, but he cannot discern the path that God is following (9:11).

Job’s impulse is not to answer God in this respect, but rather to supplicate Him (9:15). Is there no difference between God’s violent treatment of nature (9:4–5) and His violent treatment of man (9:17–18)? Is God’s justice truly indistinguishable from His power (9:19)? Is justice rational, or merely willful?

Meanwhile, even as he ponders these deep, perplexing questions, Job seems to be dying (9:25–26), and he fears dying without being reconciled to God (9:30–33). Truly his plight is dire.

(Taken from The Trial of Job by P. H. Reardon)

Friday, August 29

Acts 26:12-23: Paul continues recounting his own history, not omitting his earlier persecutions of Christians, and then goes on to describe his conversion. This is the third and most elaborate account of that event in the Acts of the Apostles and the only version of the story to contain the detail about Paul’s “kicking against the goad,” a metaphor for resistance to divine grace. This detail insinuates that Paul had already been feeling the pangs of conscience for his grievous mistreatment of Christians. This verse suggests, then, that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus represented a sort of climax to a spiritual struggle already being waged in his own soul.

In this experience Paul was “grabbed” by Christ (Philippians 3:12), and a radical destiny was laid upon him (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). Like Ezekiel (2:1-2), he is told to stand on his feet (verse 16).  Indeed, this account of Paul’s calling should be compared with the stories of the callings of several of the Old Testament prophets, chiefly Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. What Paul is called to preach is the fulfillment of all that the prophets wrote. Thus, various prophetic themes appear in this account of his call. For example, the metaphor of the opening of the eyes from darkness to light (cf. Isaiah 42:7,16). Paul clearly regards his ministry as a completion of the work of Moses and the prophets (verse 22).

Paul’s conscience was obliged to reassess his entire life up to that point. And what, beginning rather early, did he conclude? His encounter with Christ caused him to perceive that all that had gone before, especially his vaunted zeal for the Mosaic Law, was not only worthless in God’s sight; it had provided the means for him to offend God even more. Consequently those things that he had counted as gain in his prior life he now counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7). He could never again seek righteousness from the observance of the Law, "but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God" (3:9).

It was in this realization that Paul discovered the mission to the Gentiles. At this point in his discourse before Festus his listener began to think him mad. This is how tomorrow’s reading will begin.