Friday, October 21

Nehemiah 8: We come now to the renewal of the covenant (chapters 8—10). The story begins with the public reading of the Law.

In modern church parlance this chapter describes a “revival,” or a “parish renewal,” or even a “Life Alive Weekend.” We are apparently still in October of 445 (7:73), the season associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While Nehemiah has only recently arrived, Ezra has been in Jerusalem for thirteen years, and maybe he figured that the place could use a good dose of “old time religion.”

Ezra, as we reflected earlier, had been engaged in editing the Torah, and the people wanted to hear it (verses 2-3). They gathered to the east of the city (verse 1), not a normal place for gathering. Given the mystic symbolism of this site (the panorama of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives) in two of Israel’s most recent prophets (Ezekiel and Zechariah), their choice of this place to gather was surely significant. It was morning, and the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives when they began.

There was a lengthy proclamation of the Word (verses 4-5), along with prayer and devotion (verse 6). As Ezra read the text in Hebrew, which by now was only a scholar’s language, running translations were provided in the common spoken language, Aramaic (verses 7-8). Such Aramaic (and later Greek) translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament are known as Targumim or Targums, which in modern biblical research constitute a special area of study.

It was a scene of great emotion, with the experiences of conversion, remorse, and rejoicing mixed together (verses 9-12). All of this took place in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 14-18; cf. John 7:2). The observance of this feast was an initial act in the maintenance of the Law.

Philippians 2:19-30: What sort of man was Timothy? Well, we know what Paul thought of him. In today’s reading he tells the Macedonians, “I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state” (Philippians 2:20), and goes on to speak of his “proven character” (2:22).

Indeed, Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Philemon 1), “as a son with his father” (Philippians 2:22), and “my beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul addresses him, moreover, as “son Timothy” (1 Timothy 1:18), “Timothy, a true son in the faith” (1:2), and “Timothy, a beloved son” (2 Timothy 1:2).

Paul knew that Timothy had been raised in a devout, believing family
(2 Timothy 1:5), where he was trained in the Holy Scriptures (3:15).
Still young, Timothy had joined Paul’s company during the second missionary journey (Acts 16:1–3) and remained with him through the ensuing years, carefully following his “doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra” (2 Timothy 3:10–11).

Along the way, Paul found that he could entrust Timothy with important responsibilities in the ministry. The young man had not been a missionary even a year before Paul sent him from Athens to Thessaloniki for a needed pastoral visit (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5). Later, from Ephesus, Paul sent Timothy to visit the Macedonians (Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19–23) and the quarrelsome, spiteful congregation at Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10). It was to Timothy, finally, that Paul wrote the last letter of his life, asking him to “be diligent to come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9).

Epaphroditus is the second of Paul’s companions mentioned today. A member of the parish in Philippi, he had been sent to bring assistance to Paul during the time of his imprisonment at Ephesus. Epaphroditus, however, falling sick, needed Paul to care for him. Indeed, Paul remarks, this loyal churchman had nearly died. More recently he has recovered his health, so Paul is able to share this good news with the Philippians, who had been worried by a report of the illness. It is he who will carry this epistle to Philippi, to the great joy and relief of the congregation in that city.

October 22

Philippians 3:1-11: Whereas Galatians was written for a congregation that had already begun to succumb to the teachings of the Judaizers (the teaching, namely, that the Gentiles were obliged to be circumcised and to observe the Mosaic Law), in Philippians this teaching is regarded as a threat only, not an immediate and critical danger. The Judaizing errors that had already reached Galatia had not yet found their way to Philippi.

Hence, there is a difference in tone between these two epistles; nor do we find in Philippians the shock and harshness of reprimand characteristic of Galatians. One thinks of Paul’s “foolish Galatians” (Galatians 3:1) in contrast to the Philippians, whom he calls “my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and my crown” (Philippians 4:1).

In discussing the Judaizers in each of these epistles, Paul waxes autobiographical, but here too there is a difference between the two works. In Galatians Paul narrates the circumstances of his conversion, particularly his relationships to the other apostles (Galatians 1:17—2:17), a motif rendered necessary by the way in which the Judaizers in Galatia claimed the authority of those apostles. It is not necessary for Paul to go into these particulars at Philippi, where he was the only apostle known to the congregation. Instead, Paul concentrates his biographical comments on a contrast of “before” and “after” his conversion. The tone is accordingly more serene in Philippians than in Galatians, though he does use some pretty tough language to describe the Judaizers themselves (verse 2).

Nehemiah 9: Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long “narrative prayer” similar to several psalms that recount Israel’s formative history (e.g., Psalms 78 [77], 105 [104], 106 [105]). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses, which immediately preceded Israel’s entrance into Canaan. From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the themes from the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated.

The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nation’s re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that — a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from.

From Israel’s earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together by history. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers! They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer, as we see in so many of the Psalms devoted to that theme.

Indeed, there is considerable irony in the idea that the fathers are to teach their children in order that they children do not become like the fathers: “For He established a testimony in Jacob, ?And appointed a law in Israel,? Which He commanded our fathers,? That they should make them known to their children; That the generation to come might know them,? The children who would be born,? That they may arise and declare them to their children, That they may set their hope in God,? And not forget the works of God,? But keep His commandments; And may not be like their fathers (Psalm 78:5-8).

Sunday, October 23

Nehemiah 10: Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals—to be, in fact, a people very different from every other. These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), observance of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book.

Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be–namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. God’s distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That adjective had to be a reality, and not just a word.

This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God.

This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, Israel’s spiritual walls had been badly penetrated—by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances. These last were sometimes sealed by marriages joining the people’s leadership to the very worst qualities represented in the other nations.

The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of Israel’s recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive, building walls, establishing clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.

Monday, October 24

Nehemiah 11: data that we have in this chapter. The present list comprises the names of those within the walls that have been constructed. They are the separated people, the “insiders,” symbolic of the inner identity of the holy nation.

All through these two books we have watched the outsiders trying to get inside–or at least to have access to the inside–exercising a sustained harassment of those inside. We saw the response of Zerubbabel, for instance, to the suggestion, in Ezra 4:1-3, that there be no distinction between insider and outsider, because Israel’s pre-captivity history had already taught him the dangers of not insisting on that distinction. The outsiders, thus rebuffed, have spent the rest of these two books trying to prevent the separating walls from being constructed. As the enemies of Jerusalem’s walls, they were attempting to keep Israel from being Israel. They perceived that the walls symbolized exclusiveness, and they resented being outsiders.

This is a curious phenomenon. Why, after all, should they care? If Israel wanted to be exclusive, why should that preference bother anybody else? In fact, nonetheless, Israel’s exclusiveness was deeply resented. Israel’s claim to be a special and holy people, a claim that laid special moral responsibilities on Israel, was simply more than other people could endure. Consequently, Israel’s adversaries have spent much of these two books in a genuine and aggressive snit.

The one place where Israel was truly threatened, however, was not in its building programs, but in the construction of its families, the formation of its homes. Thus, intermarriage with outsiders, which so incensed both Ezra and Nehemiah, was the single path by which Israel could be most effectively led astray.

These lists of Jewish families, therefore, are very pertinent to the general preoccupation and theme of these two books. These genealogies are spiritual walls, designed to protect the identity of God’s chosen people.

The provision permitting one-tenth of its citizens (chosen by lot) to live in the Holy City established a kind of tithe, as it were, of the entire nation. Those who otherwise chose to live there represented a corresponding “free will offering” of the nation.

Tuesday, October 24

Luke 15:11-32: Holy Scripture sometimes tells of foolish young men who, failing to recognize the worth of their birthright, thoughtlessly tossed it away. It gives ampler attention to two such young men, whose cases, I suggest, warrant comparison: Esau in Genesis 25 and the younger son in the Lord’s parable in Luke 15:11–32.

First, we note that both of these young men enjoyed the fortune of good and godly fathers. Esau, the elder son of Isaac, ostensibly stood in the direct line of the divine promises made to Abraham, while in the household of the other man’s father, even the hired servants had “bread enough and to spare” (15:17).

Second, both of these young men were utter fools, the very sort about whom the Book of Proverbs has so much to say, none of it very good, and, being fools, both young men treated their heritage with disrespect.

We know that Esau was a “profane person . . . who for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:16), while the other “gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living” (Luke 15:13).

Third, in due course both young fools came to regret their mistakes. It is in respect to those regrets, however, that our comparison between the two of them must be modified into a significant contrast. Whereas one of those men simply regretted his loss, the other genuinely repented of his sin.

Nehemiah 12: This chapter, which begins with another genealogical list of priests and Levites (verses 1-26), indicates the importance that proper and verifiable “succession” enjoys in the biblical theology of institutional ministry (as distinct from prophetic ministry).

Next comes an account of the solemn dedication of the wall (verses 27-47) and all that that wall represented by way of the symbolisms we have been discussing.

It is reasonable to understand the narrative’s return to first person singular in verse 31 as an indication that we are once again dealing with the memoir of Nehemiah, on which so much of this book is based.

According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, the event narrated in this chapter took place, not in September, but in December, falling very close in the calendar, in fact, to the date of the Maccabees’ own purification of the temple (recorded in 1 Maccabees 4:60). Both events—the dedication of the walls under Nehemiah in the fifth century and the purification of the temple under Judas Maccabaeus in the second century—are called “Hanukkah,” meaning inauguration or dedication (verse 27; John 4:22). (Only the latter event, however, was incorporated into the Jewish liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Jews each December even today.)

Nehemiah saw to it that the city was ritually circled by two simultaneous processions conducted on top of the walls, complete with trumpets. The dedication of the walls is portrayed, therefore, as an event of worship. The simultaneous procession of the two groups, marching in opposite directions, constituted what one commentator calls “a stereophonic presentation.”

Wednesday, October 25

Psalm 52 (Greek & Latin 52): In Romans 3:10–12 the Apostle Paul quotes this psalm (probably by heart, because he spontaneously adds lines from several other psalms in t, with special emphasis on the universal need for salvation. His point is that, strictly speaking, there are really no just men in this world—men who are just in the sense that they are able, by the righteousness of their own works, to attain to the presence of God and stand innocent before him. Thus understood, who is a just man in this world? St. Paul’s answer is emphatic—nobody, absolutely nobody, and he quotes our psalm text to prove the point: “There is none righteous, no, not one; / There is none who understands; / There is none who seeks after God. / They have all turned aside; / They have together become unprofitable; / There is none who does good, no, not one.”

The Apostle is using our psalm here to address the major theme of Romans—that only God can justify man, and that God does so only in Jesus the Lord. Men are helpless, if left to their own capacities and accomplishments, and they are foolish to imagine otherwise. We human beings are so thoroughly infected by the results of sin that, unless God intervenes in our misery and takes a hand in our destiny, our inevitable lot is despair. None of us can measure up, no, not one. Whether Jew or Gentile, “there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22, 23).

Nehemiah 13: The dedication of the wall was the occasion for some more reading from the Torah, including the prescription found in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, which excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Israel (verse 1). As long as Nehemiah was on the local scene, such exclusions were taken seriously (verses 2-3). When he left to make a brief visit back to Babylon (verse 6), however, events turned for the worse. On his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah learned all sorts of unpleasant things.

He learned, for instance, that a member of the priestly family had become the son-in-law of his old foe, Sanballat (verse 28). In former days, when Sanballat tried to impede the construction of the wall, Nehemiah had held him off. Now, nonetheless, Sanballat was suddenly inside the walls! What he had been unable to do by force of arms, he managed to accomplish by the simple means of marrying his daughter to a priest! This serious breach in Jerusalem’s spiritual wall once again put at peril Israel’s very existence as a holy nation, a people set apart.

In addition, Nehemiah discovered that the high priest himself had provided lodging within the temple for one of those who had opposed Nehemiah’s very mission (verses 4-5). Other things had gotten out of hand, as well, such as the failure to observe the Sabbath, whether by Jews themselves or by pagans who came to sell their wares in the city (verses 15-22).

Nehemiah set himself to put everything straight again (verses 7-13). The major problem, however, continued to be the disposition of the people to intermarry with non-Jews (verses 23-27), in contravention to the Torah (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Nehemiah found it a very tough job to maintain those walls!

Recalling those great efforts, Nehemiah prayed that God would not forget them, “Remember me, O Lord” became his refrain (verses 14,22,29,30).

Thursday, October 26

Isaiah 1: The first five chapters of this book form a sort of preface, introducing the call of the prophet in chapter 6. We note the absence of historical indicators (except for 1:1, of course) in these chapters, in striking contrast with chapters 6 and 7. The purpose of this introductory material, which was surely composed after Isaiah was called, is to provide a critical analysis of the Kingdom of Judah, in order to set that calling in the proper historical context.

The time of Isaiah, the second half of the eighth century before Christ, beginning in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), was a period of rebellion against God and infidelity to His covenant. This rebellious infidelity is illustrated in the first chapter by the collapse of national life (verses 6-9), religious apostasy (verses 10-15), and social disintegration (verses 21-23).

The book’s first verse, as is usual in the prophetic books, simply provides the time frame: the second half of the eighty-century, beginning in the last year of King Uzziah, 742 B.C.

This is a book about “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), a theme that joins all parts of the work. Indeed, the names “Jerusalem” and “Zion” occur 97 times in the Book of Isaiah, the occurrences spread pretty evenly in all parts of the work.

The national life of Judah has collapsed (verses 6-9). God had made this people His children through the Exodus deliverance and covenant, but who can tell it under the current conditions?

For the first time Isaiah uses the expression “Holy One of Israel” (Qadosh Israel), which expression is found 25 times in Isaiah and only 7 times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Found in all parts of this book, it may have been coined by Isaiah himself. Indeed, he uses the expression Qadosh, “Holy One,” to refer to God 33 times, whereas it appears only 25 times in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. The transcendent holiness of God was revealed to the prophet by the voices of the Seraphim in Isaiah’s call in the Temple (6:1-3), where the word is tripled, or, if the term be permitted, “cubed”–holy times holy times holy. This is the holiness that fills heaven and earth. In a sense, all of the Book of Isaiah is an extension of that hymn of the Seraphim.

Isaiah’s criticism of religious ritual (verses 10-15) was not a condemnation of ritual worship itself. If it were, how do we explain his being called in the Temple, to which the Lord here refers as “My courts” (verse 12)? This criticism was directed, rather, to the separation of ritual from ethics (verses 16-20), two essential components of the Mosaic Law.

Isaiah’s emphasis on social ethics is of a piece with the preoccupations of other prophetic figures of the eighth century, notably Amos and Micah. Both these prophets, we observe, came from Judah, like Isaiah.

Friday, October 28

Isaiah 2: Once again Isaiah’s vision, as at the first (1:1), concerns “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1)

This chapter contains three oracles, none of which can be assigned with certainty to a particular date; they do seem to come, however, from early in Isaiah’s ministry.

The first of these oracles (verses 1-5) is concerned with the ideal Jerusalem, the Jerusalem to come—“it shall come to pass in the last days” (verse 2). It speaks of the future glorification of God’s holy city, that more blessed Jerusalem of promise, of which the ancient capital of David was a prefiguration and type (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10).

It will be, says the prophet, a city of peace (verse 4), something that the Jerusalem on earth has never been. Isaiah will describe this Jerusalem at greater length in chapter 4.

Although the literary and historical relationship between the two texts is uncertain, verses 2-4 of this chapter are substantially identical to Micah 4:1-4.

This oracle is internally balanced by “into Zion” (verses 2-3) and “out of Zion” (verses 3-4). The image of flowing upwards indicates that this is not a natural process, so to speak; it does not follow the natural law of gravity. It suggests, rather, the divine magnetism by which God’s reverses the order of nature.

The second oracle (verses 6-9) moves from the ideal Jerusalem to the actual, unfaithful city known to Isaiah. This oracle is critical of the idolatrous pursuit of wealth in the Jerusalem of Isaiah’s time. We remember that his prophetic calling came in the last year of King Uzziah (6:1), whose reign (783-742) had restored a great deal of Judah’s prosperity. This prosperity, Isaiah saw, led to the worship of human achievement as a particularly virulent form of idolatry. It was the sin of pride, and it was Isaiah’s task to threaten its punishment.

Consequently, this second oracle offers a series of contrasts with the first. Instead of drawing the nations to the ways of God, the prophet describes the actual Jerusalem as conformed to the ways of the nations:

Thus, the first oracle says, “He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” To which the second oracle responds, “They are soothsayers like the Philistines, and they are pleased with the children of foreigners.”

That is to say, instead of the Lord’s people teaching true wisdom to the nations, the Lord’s people have deliberately adopted the wisdom of the other nations. This disposition to conform to the expectations of the world remains, of course, a temptation for the people of God in all generations.

Likewise, instead of conferring spiritual riches on the world—“For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”—the Lord’ city acquires worldly riches for itself: “Their land is also full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures.”

Instead of being a city of peace—“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”—Jerusalem is now allied with the forces of war: “Their land is also full of horses, and there is no end to their chariots.”

Whereas the first oracle spoke of the knowledge of the true God—“Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”— the second oracle speaks of the worship of false gods: “Their land is also full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made.”

Isaiah is exhorting the Jerusalem of the mid-eighth century, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

This punishment of these evils is the theme of the third oracle (verses 10-22).

Isaiah refers to the Holy Land’s many limestone caves that provided shelter and concealment on occasions of danger: “Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust . . . They shall go into the holes of the rocks, / And into the caves of the earth . . . To go into the clefts of the rocks, / And into the crags of the rugged rocks” (verses 10, 19, 21). These natural formations, in which men sought escape from their enemies (1 Samuel 13:6; 14:11; 22:1; 1 Kings 14:8; Hosea 10:8), will offer scant protection for those who flee from the wrath of God. Such meager refuge for the frightened stands in strong contrast to the pride of spirit that evokes God’s anger.

Twice in this section, Isaiah uses the expression “the haughtiness of man” (verses 11, 17)). This word, gabehuth—used only in these two verses of the Hebrew Scriptures, is related to the Hebrew word for “mountain,” gaboah. The imagery used here has to do with great height: “everything proud and lofty,” “everything lifted up,” “the cedars of Lebanon” and “the oaks of Bashan,” “all the high mountains,” “all the exalted hills,” “every high tower” and “every fortified wall.”

The pride indicated here is something solid. It is more than an attitude of pride; it is something tangible that expresses pride. Isaiah thinks of man’s haughtiness in institutional terms; it takes on economic, political, and military expression.

This pride takes shape in technology. The imagery here recalls the pride that inspired the Tower of Babel: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). In the Judah of his day, Isaiah was witnessing once again the repetition of that ancient pride which led to the division of tongues.