Friday, August 22

Second Kings 23: Although repentance is profitable to the soul, Holy Scripture does not regard it as sufficient to undo the historical effects of sin. That is to say, by repentance I can change the course of my life—and my eternal destiny—but the bad things I have done, and the good things left undone, will still continue to run on their own. My repentance will not undo them as actions in history. Such is the practical meaning, I take it, of the adage, factum non fit non factum—”a thing done cannot become a thing not done.” It can be repented of, it can be forgiven, but it cannot be undone.

This truth about repentance was made clear at the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll in 622. When this document caused Josiah and his friends to realize how far Judah had wandered into sin, they immediately repented. The prophetess Huldah, consulted on this matter, assured them that the Lord accepted their repentance, but she also warned that their repentance would not avert the historical effects of so much sin. The accumulated transgressions of numerous generations would still bring about the destruction of the nation. Part of Josiah’s repentance was an acceptance of the divine judgment on the nation.

An integral component of repentance is the grace to leave in God’s provident hands the historical judgment of the manifold evil effects of our sins. We repentant sinners make such amends as we can (cf. Luke 19:8), but none of us can even know—much less avert—all the evil consequences our sins have unleashed in history. These things, once done, have already taken on a dynamism of their own, and God will deal with them according to His own wise judgment.

This truth about repentance pertains, not only to the bad things we have done, but also to the required good things we have failed to do. Only in our later years—long after we made the major decisions that governed our lives—do some of us come to realize how many possibilities we have squandered and how few duties we have fulfilled. But now it is too late: our education is long over, our children have already been raised, further opportunities are few, and our neglected friends lie cold in the tomb.

We find ourselves unable to undo any of it. We weep, with Joel, for “the years the locust hath consumed, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm.” We are obliged simply to accept the judgment of God, following the insight of the Psalmist: iudicia Domini vera, iustificata in semetipsa—“the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”

Repentance, then, as a turning from sin to God, involves more than a release from personal guilt. It means, also, handing over to the Lord’s judgment and providential care the countless historical effects of our myriad failures. That is to say, repentance places not only our individual lives but also our larger destiny—the myriad links that join us to the rest of mankind—under God’s sovereign governance of history. Repentance makes us participes rei, sharers of a thing vastly larger than ourselves.

Josiah’s death at Megiddo in 609—a bare thirteen years after the discovery of the Deuteronomic Scroll—was the beginning of all the punishments Judah would undergo as the binding historical legacy of its many infidelities. Jeremiah saw it and wept.

Saturday, August 23

Second Kings 24: The opening verses of this chapter are tied to the closing section of chapter 23, which gave an outline of the reign of King Jehoiakim/Eliakim (609—December 7, 598). He was not a good king (cf. Jeremiah 22).

The Assyrian Empire effectively ended in 609 with the fall of Nineveh to the forces assembled by the Babylonians under Nabopolassar (626-605). His crown prince was a military leader named Nebuchadnezzar, who commanded the Babylonian forces that defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of Carchemish.

On the death of Nabopolassar on August 16, 605 this Nebuchadnezzar assumed the throne and ruled until 562. He is remembered in Holy Scripture chiefly as the villain in the fall of Jerusalem and the ensuing Babylonian Captivity. The accounts of his reign in Daniel picture an unusual display of megalomania.

The two prophets contemporary to Nebuchadnezzar—Jeremiah and Ezekiel—call him “Nebuchadrezzar,” which better reflects his name in Akkadian sources: Nabu-kudurri-usur. Since we are considering him in the Book of Kings, however, we will follow the spelling of this later source.

After his conquest of the Holy Land in 604, Nebuchadnezzar apparently made an annual campaign into the region in order to collect the imposed taxation personally. The present chapter indicates that King Jehoiakim paid this tribute for three years and then rebelled (verse 1). This detail is significant, suggesting that something changed in 601.

This was the case: In 601 Nebuchadnezzar moved against Egypt and was soundly defeated by Pharaoh Neco II (610-594). After this defeat, Nebuchadnezzar left the region and returned to Babylon, where he spent the next eighteen months rebuilding his army. Feeling stronger, Nebuchadnezzar first defeated other states in and around the Fertile Crescent in 599-598, prior to moving against Judah (cf. Jeremiah 49:28-33).

According to the Babylonian Chronicles, Nebuchadnezzar’s army took up siege against Jerusalem on November 28, 598, and the city fell to that army on March 13, 597. During that interval, King Jehoiakim died on December 7, 598. He was succeeded by his 18-year-old son, Jehoiakin, who ruled only until the fall of Jerusalem three months later. When the city fell to the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar made Jehoiakin’s uncle, Zedekiah, king in his place, and Judah was once again subject to the throne in Babylonia.

In the hope that the citizens of Jerusalem would be more compliant to Babylon in the future, Nebuchadnezzar took much of its leadership into captivity at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. This large group included a young priest named Ezekiel.

Sunday, August 24

Second Kings 25: Jerusalem continued to be rebellious to Babylon. Or, more exactly, it courted favor with Egypt, where the XXVIth Dynasty was still trying to challenge Babylon’s hegemony over the western half of the Fertile Crescent. This was certainly Jeremiah’s reading of the political situation, and he fell into strong official unpopularity by speaking against it. The pharaoh at that time was Apries, or Hophra, 589-570.

Within a decade, Nebuchadnezzar became weary of it all. He once again laid siege to Jerusalem, this time for 19 months. This lengthy siege probably means he needed most of his army to keep the Egyptians at bay (cf. Jeremiah 37:5). The king’s flight from Jerusalem during the famine was the first sign the city was soon to fall. He was captured and forced to witness the execution of his sons before his eyes were put out. Jerusalem fell a month later.

Solomon’s Temple was not destroyed in battle. It was deliberately razed, rather, when the fighting was all over. This destruction came from a cool decision and represented Babylon’s determination that Judah would no longer be even a little power on the earth. The treasures of the Temple were carried away to Babylon, as well, and Judah’s official leaders were duly executed. Over the region Nebuchadnezzar appointed a governor, Gedaliah, who befriended Jeremiah. After the departure of the Babylonian forces, this governor was assassinated by revolutionaries, who abducted Jeremiah to Egypt; these details are related at great length in Jeremiah 40.

The author of Kings, who wrote much later, knew that the fall of Jerusalem was not the real end of the story, even though it marked the end of the period of the kings. This writer knew that Jerusalem was restored in the next generation; he knew also of the fall of Babylon itself in 539. Although these later events lay outside of the scope of the present book, the author of Kings was well aware of them.

It is hardly surprising, then, that he chose to end Kings on a somewhat more positive note. He records that King Jehoiakin, deposed a decade earlier and currently in captivity in Babylon, was liberated from prison and permitted to spend the rest of his life at the Babylonian court, along with other captured kings who owed their very lives to the throne in that court. In that court he finally became somebody. Indeed, when we recall that poor Jehoiakin had reigned, in fact, for a bare three months, there is something distinctly pathetic in learning that, in the latter part of his life, he received “a seat above the seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon.” Inscribed on clay tablets in the palace at Babylon, the actual figures of Jehoiakin’s regular “allowance” are still preserved, along with other receipts and inventory lists of the time.

Jehoikin’s change in fortune came in 561 as a kind gesture from the new Babylonian Emperor, Evilmerodach, or Awil-Marduk, who was assassinated the next year. Nebuchadnezzar was, in fact, the last of Babylon’s significant kings. Evilmerodach was succeed by Neriglissar (559-556), and he by Nabonidus (555-539). This last attempted a religious reform; favoring the moon god, Sin, over the sun god, Marduk, Nabonidus alienated the populace and especially the priests of Marduk. He fled to Arabia, leaving his son, Belshazzar on the throne to read the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5) and to face the advance of Cyrus and his Persians.

Monday, August 25

Job 1: This chapter contains the first three of six scenes:

In the first scene (1:1–5) Job is called a devout man who feared God, a man who “shunned evil.” He thus enjoyed the prosperity promised to such folk in Israel’s wisdom literature. Job is the very embodiment of the prosperous just man held up as a model in the Book of Proverbs.

The second scene (1:6–12) describes the first discussion between God and “the Satan,” “the Adversary.” Satan, the name of the “accuser of our brethren, who accused them . . . day and night” (Revelation 12:9–10), was also known to the Prophet Zechariah (3:1–4). The LXX identifies Job’s tempter as “the Slanderer” (ho Diabolos, whence the English derivative “devil”). Satan and “the devil” are identified in Matthew 4:8–10 and elsewhere in the New Testament.

According to the Hebrew text of Job, Satan is numbered among the “sons of God,” an expression the LXX understands as a reference to the angels. The Christian Church, following the lead of such passages as Matthew 25:41 (“the devil and his angels”), understands Satan to be the leader of the fallen angels.

Satan’s argument against Job is simple and plausible: If a just man is so richly blest in his uprightness, who is to say that this just man is really so loyal to God? May it not be the case that the just man is simply taking good care of his own interest? Let the alleged just man, then, be put to the test.

Indeed, ever since the first man who lived in prosperity, Adam in the Garden, this demonic Adversary has been endeavoring to put man to the test. The greatest trial of Job will come in the consideration of his own mortality, which is the sad inheritance he has received from Adam. We must not lose sight of Job’s antithesis to Adam. Job’s faithful service to God in this book stands in sharp relief against the disobedience of Adam, which brought death into the world.

In this second scene (1:6–12), the discussion between God and Satan, we do well to observe three things: First, the trial of Job will be like that of Abraham, who also enjoyed the rich blessings of a just man. Indeed, Job appears as a sort of Gentile Abraham. As St. Hesychius of Jerusalem remarked in his homilies on Job back in the fifth century, we should not wander too far from the trial of Abraham in Genesis 22 when we consider the trials of Job.

Second, God is an optimist (for want of a better word), in the sense that He has great confidence in Job. In this whole book, God is truly on Job’s side. Indeed, God is the only one in the story completely on Job’s side.

Third, Satan appears as a skeptic and a cynic, persuaded that men act only for selfish motives. That is to say, Satan believes that men are very self-centered, pretty much like Satan himself. Thus, Satan has a rather low view of man. God does not have a low view of man. Not least of the ironies of this book, in fact, is the great confidence that God places in Job’s fidelity.

When God consents to the testing of His faithful servant, the third scene (1:13–22) describes Job’s loss of his children and possessions. Now begins Job’s testing. In fact, here begins Job’s tragedy.

One does not have to live very long to perceive a certain perverseness about this world, life’s strange but innate contrariness that cripples man’s stride and corrodes his hope. Indeed, in terms of plain empirical verification, few lines of Holy Scripture seem supported by more and better evidence than St. Paul’s testimony that “creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20). This futility is what Job is now going to taste.

This dark sense of things is what the ancient Greeks called “tragedy,” a subject the Greeks appear to have pondered more than most. The root word for “tragedy” means “goat” (tragos), an animal commonly associated with stubbornness, mischief, aberrance, and even damnation (Matthew 25:32–33). Tragedy is the cup that Job will drain before this book is finished.

Tuesday, August 26

Job 2: The fourth, fifth, and sixth scenes of this book are the substance of the second chapter.

In the fourth scene (2:1–7), Satan, disappointed at Job’s unexpected response to the initial trials, wants to afflict Job in his very flesh, persuaded that this new kind of pain will bring out the worst in him. He predicts that Job, in such a case, will finally curse God (2:5).

Back in Job 1:9, Satan had asked if Job was a just man “for nothing” (higgam), meaning “without getting anything out of it.” Now God throws this expression back in Satan’s face in 2:3—“you moved me to destroy him ‘for nothing’ [higgam]” (NKJV, “without cause”). That is to say, it was not Job that failed the test, but Satan. The reader discerns that God is actually taunting Satan here. As in Psalm 2, the Lord is laughing His enemy to scorn.

Satan, however, now takes his cynicism to a new level. Believing that man is at root selfish, Satan wants Job put to the test in his own flesh, his own person, not simply in his family and possessions. Job’s success so far, Satan believes, amounts to nothing more than the experience of survival. So, he contends, let Job’s survival be put at risk. Strip him down to his naked existence, deprived of health and reputation, and then see what happens. At that more personal level, the demonic cynic argues, Job will not fear God; he will curse God, rather.

God, ever the optimist with respect to Job, agrees to this new trial, thus introducing the fifth scene (2:7–10), which describes Job’s sufferings. These sufferings involve loathsome and unsightly infections that are often mentioned by Job in the later discourses. Treated like a leper, Job goes to sit on the city dump. He becomes a foreshadowing of the Suffering Servant prophesied in the Book of Isaiah: “In His humiliation His justice was taken away, / And who will declare His generation?” (Acts 8:33, quoting Isaiah 53:8 LXX).

Job is dying, and his wife tempts him to curse God before he does so. In short, Job’s wife reacts very much as Satan predicted that Job would react.

Indeed, we do perceive a change in Job at this point. If he does not curse God, Job also does not explicitly bless God as he had done in his first affliction (1:21). Instead, he humbly submits to God’s will (2:10).

In each case, nonetheless, God’s confidence in Job is vindicated. Satan has done his worst to Job, but Job has not succumbed. Like Abraham in Genesis 22, Job has met the trial successfully.

Satan, having done his worst, disappears and is never again mentioned in the book. The rest of the story concerns only God and human beings.

Job’s three friends now show up to introduce the sixth and last scene of this prologue (2:11–13), which directly prepares for the long dialogues that make up the book’s central section. The three friends are introduced here, precisely because of their important role in the long central section of this book.

Job’s friends, we are told, come to “comfort” him. This verb, “to comfort” (niham), is a very important word in the Book of Job. Introduced here at the story’s beginning, the expression “comfort” appears several more times, whether in the verb form (7:13; 16:2; 21:34; 29:25) or as the cognate noun (6:10). Whereas Job’s friends fail utterly in their efforts to “comfort” him throughout almost the entire book, they do, ironically, succeed at the end (42:11), after the resolution of Job’s conflict by God’s revelatory intervention.

A week of silence ensues (2:13), parallel to the week of revelry with which the book began (1:2, 4).

Wednesday, August 27

Job 3: Now the style turns from prose to poetry, the style that will be maintained until almost the end of the book.

Job now breaks the week of silence, beginning his lament, a lament that reminds us more of Jeremiah and some of the Psalms, perhaps, than of Israel’s wisdom literature. Chapter 3 is, in fact, a prayer that is paralleled in several of the psalms (such as 49, 73, and 139 [LXX 48, 72, 138]). This chapter is simply a lamentation, much like the biblical book that bears that same name.

Like Elijah pursued by Jezebel, Job is weary of life. Indeed, a more detailed comparison between Elijah and Job is amply warranted by the resemblances between this third chapter and 1 Kings 10. The faith of both men is tried in adversity and discouragement.

Job is also to be compared here to the suffering, afflicted Jeremiah. The present chapter resembles the dereliction recorded in such texts as Jeremiah 15 and 20. Like Jeremiah (20:14–18), Job curses (yeqahlel) the day he was born (cf. also 1 Kings 19:4; Jonah 4:3, 8; Sirach 23:14). Job does not, however, curse God.

Still, Job has become impatient; he is beginning to experience even God as an enemy. Job’s “let there be darkness” (3:4–6) stands in opposition to God’s “let there be light” in Creation (Genesis 1:3). In verses 11–12 Job begins the great question “Why?” that will fill so much of the book.

In 3:9 we note the striking image of the “eyelashes of the dawn,” referring to the beams of light that radiate from the sun just before its rising.

This very question that Job begins to utter, “Why?” is also heard frequently from the lips of the psalmist. It will in due course be given its definitive sanction by Christ our Lord (Mark 15:34).

In 3:20 the “Why?” becomes more intense and less rhetorical. Theodicy’s major problem, how to reconcile innocent suffering with a just, merciful, and almighty God, is now introduced. It is this “Why?” that Job’s three friends will endeavor to answer in the discourses of the following chapters. These friends have their own theories on the matter of evil. None of them really suspects the truth of the matter, namely, that God is permitting Job’s faith to be tempted.

The Book of Job illustrates what we may call the Bible’s “apocalyptic principle,” the rule that asserts that “more is happening than seems to be happening.” Like Abraham in Genesis 22, Job does not realize that his faith is being tested. Indeed, this is an essential aspect of the book’s drama. God knows that Job’s faith is being tried, Satan knows it, and we readers know it. None of the other dramatis personae in this story, however, has a clue about what is really happening, not even Job. Indeed, especially not Job.

This important interpretive key, the apocalyptic principle, appears in various ways in Holy Scripture, from the “deep sleep” that the Lord casts on the sentinels of Saul (1 Samuel 26:12), to Assyria’s being used as the rod of God’s wrath (Isaiah 10:5), to the unwitting prophecy uttered by a blasphemous high priest (John 11:49–51). In all such cases there is more happening than seems to be happening. At the Bible’s end, the apocalyptic principle forms the very substance of the Book of Revelation. The entire Book of Job is built on this same interpretive principle: More is going on than appears to be going on.

Thursday, August 28

Mark 15:42-47: Joseph of Arimathea is variously portrayed by the four inspired writers. Mark (15:43) and Luke (23:51) describe him as someone who “was waiting for the kingdom of God,” an expression which, taken without context, might indicate no more than that Joseph was a devout Jew. Luke adds that Joseph, though a member of the Sanhedrin, had not consented to its plot against Jesus. Matthew (27:57) and John (19:38) are more explicit about Joseph’s faith, both of them calling him a “disciple”—that is, a Christian—though John observes that he was so “secretly, for fear of the Jews.”

In their slightly differing descriptions, the evangelists may have been
portraying Joseph of Arimathea at somewhat different stages of his “spiritual pilgrimage,” to use the customary expression. If this is the case, then it appears that the death of Jesus, the very hour of His apparent
failure and defeat, was the occasion Joseph chose for getting really serious in his commitment, going public about his Christian discipleship.

He approached Pontius Pilate—“boldly,” says Mark—and asked for the
body of Jesus.

In all of the Gospels, Joseph’s actions are contrasted with those of the other members of the Sanhedrin. Whereas they blindfolded, mocked, and abused Jesus, Joseph treats even his dead body with dignity and respect. Although executed criminals were often buried in a common grave, or even left as carrion for wild beasts, Joseph carefully places the body of Jesus in a special tomb, a place befitting the dignity of the coming Resurrection.

Michelangelo, in his final and less famous Pieta, the one at Florence, portrayed Joseph of Arimathea in his own likeness. I have long thought, similarly, that that just man who buried Jesus in his own sepulcher serves as a model for all believers. That tomb, originally planned for Joseph, has been unoccupied these many centuries, a symbol of the hope we have for our own graves.

Acts 26:1-11: There is a sense in which the present speech of Paul is the high point of Luke’s account of his ministry. Containing the third narrative of Paul’s conversion, it will represent a fulfillment of a prophecy contained in the first narrative (9:15), namely, he will now appear before a king. Paul’s apologetics (apologeito in verse 1, apoplogeisthai in verse 2) in this speech is consonant with his legal defense hitherto, but he becomes more explicit about his faith and his conversion.

Legally Paul has nothing to lose, for his appeal to a higher court at Rome has already been granted. He will use the present circumstances as an opportunity, rather, to bear witness to the Gospel, which he treats as the fulfillment of the hope he had always cherished as a loyal Pharisee (verse 5; cf. 24:5; 28:22). That is to say, the hope of the resurrection (verse 8). At this point Paul begins to move from apologetics to evangelism.

Friday, August 29

Job 5: Job’s lament, Eliphaz believes, is essentially selfish, expressing only Job’s subjective pain. Therefore, Eliphaz becomes more severe in his criticism of Job, referring to him as “foolish” (5:2, 3) and speaking of Job’s perished children in an insensitive way (5:4).

In Eliphaz’s experience of the divine claims, on which his objections to the lament of Job are based, there has been a dominant emphasis on God’s utter purity and transcendence. Here Eliphaz touches a theme in the Prophets (for instance, Amos 5:4, 6), going on to describe God in terms of justice (Job 5:11–15) and benevolence (5:9, 10, 16). Eliphaz contends that Job, instead of complaining about God, even by implication, should be putting his trust in God (5:17), who delivers (5:19–20) and heals (5:18), even as He corrects and chastises.

Though it is too severe and personally insensitive, Eliphaz does make a basically reliable case. Indeed, in God’s final revelation to Job near the end of the book, we meet some of the very themes that initially appeared in the first discourse of Eliphaz.

Moreover, in the final verses of this, his first speech (5:25–26), Eliphaz ironically foretells the blessings that Job will receive at the end of the story (42:12–17). However much, then, Eliphaz managed to misinterpret the implications of his own religious experience, that experience itself was valid and sound. To say that Eliphaz was wrong in his assessment of Job does not mean that Eliphaz was wrong in respect to everything he proclaimed.

Indeed, with respect to the exchange between Eliphaz and Job, we have the impression that the two men are arguing at cross purposes. Most of Eliphaz’s claims are beyond dispute, nor will Job dispute them. Above all, Job himself will bear witness to God’s purity and transcendence, about which Eliphaz has been most insistent. Indeed, as the story develops we shall see that Job knows far more on this subject of God’s holiness and purity than Eliphaz could imagine. The difference between the two men is that Eliphaz has never been tested as Job is being tested. Job knows this difference; Eliphaz doesn’t.

Acts 26:12-32: Paul continues recounting his own history, not omitting his earlier persecutions of Christians, and then goes on to describe his conversion. We have here 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.