Friday, December 15th

Revelation 16:8-16: The fourth plague listed here does not appear in Exodus at all; Moses had been able to blot out the sunlight, but not even he was able to make the sun hotter. Even this plague, nonetheless, does not bring the idolaters to repentance (verse 9).

The darkness of the fifth bowl (verse 10) corresponds to the ninth plague in the Book of Exodus (10:21-29). The sixth bowl, the drying up of the Euphrates, includes the proliferation of frogs, which corresponds to Moses’ second plague against Pharaoh (Exodus 8:2-6). The hailstones that accompany the seventh bowl (verse 21) are parallel to Moses’ seventh plague against Egypt (Exodus 9:13-26).

The sixth bowl of plagues here is a composite. There is, first of all, a drying up of the Euphrates, so that the Parthian armies can march westward. This puts one in mind of the “drying up” of the Jordan, so that the Israelites could move west against the Canaanites. Because of the great difference between the two instances, however, this symbolism should be read as an example of theological “inversion” (in the sense used by John Steinbeck, who often employs biblical symbols in this way), so that the identical image is used for both good and bad meanings.

With respect to the drying up of the Euphrates, John knew a precedent in Jeremiah (50:38), who spoke of the drying up of the waters of Babylon, to facilitate its capture by the Persians. Indeed, John will have a great deal to say about the fall of Babylon.

Verse 15 contains a well-known saying of Jesus, in which He compares His final return to the coming of a thief in the dead of night. This dominical saying is preserved in the Gospels of Matthew (24:43) and Luke (12:39).

The final battle takes place at Armageddon (verse 16), which literally is “hill of Megiddo.” Megiddo sits on the edge of the Plain of Esdralon and was in antiquity the site of two famous battles, in each of which a king was killed. In Judges 5 the Canaanite king Sisera was slain there, and 2 Kings 23 describes the death of Josiah there in 609. In John’s mind, Armageddon symbolizes disaster, catastrophe, and violence.

Saturday, February 16

Luke 1:26-38: To Mary’s inquiry——“How can this be, since I do not know a man?”— Gabriel gives an adequate and very reassuring response, whereas Zacharias’s request is not only denied, but he is punished for even making it!

The difference between the two cases is not hard to discern. Mary’s question is actually a request for further instruction. Since she is a virgin, and Gabriel is telling her she is about to become a mother, Mary really does need more information. Her question to Gabriel means something like “Tell me what I am supposed to do.” There is no arrogance here, nor doubt. On the contrary, Mary’s attitude is summed up in her final words to Gabriel: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (1:38).

Psalms 30 (Greek & Latin 29): It is entirely appropriate to pray this psalm at this time, inasmuch as the its title tells us it is “a Song at the dedication of the House of David.” It later became a song for liturgical festival celebrated every year—the Dedication (Hanukkah) of the temple.

Hanukkah is a winter feast (cf. John 10:22) dating from 165 B.C., and Jews around the world continue to celebrate it even today, long after their temple has disappeared from history. This year the festival began this past Tuesday evening.

At Hanukkah, David’s personal sentiments of gratitude and praise to the redeeming God became incorporated into Israel’s restoration to her temple after years of oppression and strife. This history is narrated in chapters 1—4 of 1 Maccabees. When Antiochus Epiphanes IV came to the throne of Syria in September of 175 B.C., it was the beginning of very hard times for the Chosen People.

Their oppression by this ruthless overlord included even the desecration of the temple. At the end of this decade of terror (175–165), when Judas Maccabaeus rededicated the temple at Jerusalem, Israel felt it could now, with unburdened heart, make its own the ancient sentiments of David: “I will extol you, O Lord, for You have lifted me up, and have not let my foes rejoice over me.”

But both David and the temple were “types” of Him who was to come, and the deeper, truer voice in this psalm is Christ our Lord on the day of the Resurrection: “O Lord, you have brought my soul up from the grave; You have kept me alive, that I should not go down into the abyss.” The time of suffering was followed by the morning of the paschal deliverance: “For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life.” The dark hour of the Passion (cf. John 13:30) gave way to the dawn of victory.

In the Garden, on the night in which He was betrayed, the Lord had prayed for this deliverance: “You hid Your face, and I was troubled. . . . I cried to You, O Lord; and to the Lord I made supplication: ‘What profit is there in my blood, when I go down into the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth? Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me; Lord, be my helper’.”

The New Testament describes that Garden prayer of the Lord “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear” (Heb. 5:7). And on the dawning of the day of Easter victory, our psalm refers back to God’s hearing of that vehement prayer of tears: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. . . . You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness.”

Christ is the true David, the new Israel’s sweet Psalmist, our song-master in the eternal praise of God: “Sing praises to the Lord, you saints of His, and give thanks to the remembrance of His holy name. . . . To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent. O Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”

Old Israel’s winter Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) is now the new Israel’s spring feast of Pascha, for Christ is the true Temple, of which St. John wrote: “But I saw no temple in [heaven], for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). When the Lord told His enemies: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” they misunderstood him, not aware that “He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them” (John 2:19–22).

Sunday, December 17

Luke 1:39-56 and Psalms 98: The latter part of Isaiah, in which the dominant theme is Israel’s return from the Babylonian Captivity, speaks several times of God’s “arm,” a metaphor especially used in conjunction with the noun “salvation” and the adjective “holy” (Is. 40:10; 51:9; 52:10; 53:1; 59:16; 63:5).

This robust image of God’s arm, which had first appeared in the Bible in the context of the people’s deliverance from Egypt (cf. Ex. 6:6; 15:16), was thus applied to their return from exile in Babylon. In each case, the redemption of the oppressed was ascribed to the holy flexing of God’s muscle, as it were, on their behalf.

In today’s Gospel reading, the expectant Mother of the Savior summons this same metaphor to describe God’s definitive historical intervention on behalf of His people: “Holy is His name, / And His mercy is on those who fear Him, / From generation to generation. / He has shown strength with His arm” (Luke 1:49–51). God’s arm in these contexts is an image of His “power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4), “the power of God to salvation” (1:16).

The same reference to God’s holy, salvific arm appears several times in Psalms, one example being the opening of today’s Psalm: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for the Lord has done wondrous things; His right hand and His holy arm have wrought salvation.”

God’s salvation is not simply a thing announced, but a “wrought” reality. In saving us, God truly does certain deeds, “wondrous things,” by which we are redeemed. God saves man by the forceful intrusion of His holiness into man’s history. God’s arm is a metaphor of this irrupting redemptive holiness. In the “wondrous things” of the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, God’s arm invades the processes of human destiny with the outpouring of His own life. Man’s life is thereby given access to the incorruptible life of God.

This, says our psalm, is the substance of the Gospel proclaimed to the nations and peoples of the earth: “The Lord has made known His salvation; unto the nations has He revealed His righteousness. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”

The substance of the Gospel, then, is not some theory about God or even some set of norms by which man is to live. At root, the Gospel has absolutely nothing in common with even the highest religious speculations, such as those of the Upanishads, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Lao Tzi, or the Buddha. In the strictest possible sense, beyond all human reckoning or expectation, the Gospel is a “new song,” a radically different voice on the human scene. It is the revelation of God’s holy arm taking charge of man’s history. It is that redemptive, holy activity by which “He has shown strength with His arm.” It is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

Such is the meaning of Theophany, literally “the appearing of God” in man’s history. This appearing of God is not a general and pervasive luminosity to which the human race has a ready and easy access. It is, on the contrary, most particular, very specified with respect to time and place. God has become incarnate only once. Only once has the price of our sins been paid. Only once has He “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has ordained.” Moreover, “He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Only once has God done all of these “wondrous things.”

Our psalm speaks likewise of this latter judgment of the world by one Man whom He has ordained. “For He comes to judge the earth,” it says, “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with uprightness.” All of human history will, at the last, be summoned before the same Judge whom God has ordained, giving “assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” This single, unique standard of the final judgment is likewise a component of the Gospel itself: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him” (Matt. 25:31, 32).

Particular in the time and place of its appearance, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is nonetheless universal as the canon and measure of man’s destiny, being solely the source of the “knowledge of salvation” (Luke 1:77).

Monday, December 18

Psalms 44 (Greek & Latin 43): Second Chronicles 20:1–19 describes a special liturgical service at the Jerusalem temple, in which King Jehoshaphat (873–849) led the people in a prayer of lamentation and intercession during a time of great crisis. He also proclaimed a period of fasting, for the plight of the people seemed desperate; their enemies were upon them, and “Judah gathered together to ask help from the Lord” (20:4).

There were many such occasions in biblical times, and many more since then, for the enemies of God’s people are both numerous (“My name is Legion; for we are many,” Mark 5:9) and powerful (“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” Eph. 6:12). Indeed, we are continually at war, we children of God, and we sometimes feel simply overwhelmed, almost empty of hope.

Our psalm was obviously written for such times: “You have given us as sheep to the slaughter and scattered us among the nations. You have bartered Your people for a pittance and made no profit on the sale.” A useful prayer, this psalm of despondency, because the life of faith is not a sustained, uninterrupted series of triumphs.

The prayer begins, however, with an appeal to Tradition: “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us.” Such an appeal to the lessons of history is, of course, standard in the Bible, for the biblical God is, first and last, “the God of our fathers.” Thus, the message of Genesis has to do with God’s fidelity to Israel’s patriarchs, while Exodus tells of Israel’s redemption by that same patriarchal God. Other historical books of the Bible narrate the continued faithfulness of His promises to an unfaithful people. The prophetic literature, likewise, constantly looks back to God’s redemptive work throughout Israel’s history, as both paradigm and prophecy of what He will do for His people in the future.

A similar note is sounded strongly in the Wisdom literature of the Bible. The Book of Proverbs, for instance, is forever appealing to the moral lessons of history, that complex of disciplines and standards learned by experience, prescribed by the authority of Tradition and handed down through succeeding generations. In this case too, biblical religion is essentially an inherited religion, and its Lord is “the God of our fathers.”

Tradition is also the note on which our psalm begins, then, almost its entire first half being taken up with a review of past experience. But God is not only the God of the patriarchs in the past; He is also our own God, one and the same: “You are my king and my God, You who command victories for Jacob.”

Then suddenly the psalm’s tone changes, for the reassuring lessons from the past are now being put sternly to the test: “But You have cast us off and put us to shame. You no longer march forth with our armies; You have turned us back from the foe, and our enemies plunder us at will.”

The situation here may be likened to that of Job. He too had ever endeavored to be pleasing to the God of the fathers, steadfastly following the high moral precepts handed down from authorities of old. If one reads carefully what is said of Job in the first chapter of the book that bears his name, it is clear that he is a perfect embodiment of the traditional prescriptive norms treated in Proverbs and Israel’s other wisdom literature.

Thus, when Job is undeservedly afflicted, his sentiments are very much what we find here in our psalm—shock, surprise, and disappointment. He complains to God, very much as this psalm complains: “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, a derision and scorn to those about us.” Such is the prayer of those who, like Job, feel overwhelmed by the sense that, in spite of His salvific deeds in the past and His promises for the future, God has simply forgotten. There are days when, if we are believers at all, we can only be described as “men of little faith.”

The present psalm is the prayer of an individual, or a people, being sorely tried with respect to faith. Were it not for such experiences of being abandoned by God, there would be no test for the important proposition that the just man lives by faith. Whatever the trial (and its possible forms are manifold), it is finally the voice of faith—albeit, little faith—that prevails in this psalm. We pray to the Lord with those other men that our Lord describes as “of little faith,” the frightened disciples on the stormy lake: “Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Rise up, and do not cast us off forever. . . . Arise and come to our help; deliver us for the sake of Your name.”

From Romans 8:35, 36 we know how the Apostle Paul prayed this psalm, seeing in its lament a reflection of the sufferings in his own soul by reason of his fidelity to Christ: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: / ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; / We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’“

Tuesday, December 19

Psalms 48 (Greek & Latin 47): Most especially after the Assyrian Sennacherib’s failure to capture Jerusalem in 701 (cf. 2 Kin. 19; 2 Chr. 32; Is. 37), many of its citizens came to believe that God’s protection of the city would forever save it from such a fate. Their presumptuous confidence in this illusion grew into an arrogant, almost magical audacity at odds with an earlier warning they had received from the Prophet Micah. He had cautioned them that unrepented sin inevitably invites the judgment of God, even on His chosen city (Micah 3:12). Then, more than a century later, this warning of Micah was taken up by Jeremiah, when Nebuchadnezzar led his Babylonian army against Jerusalem. So strong and popular was their rash, magical presumption of Jerusalem’s invincibility that Jeremiah’s words fell largely on the deaf ears of a people not convinced of their need for conversion. God would protect His holy city, they were persuaded, so why repent? In consequence of this sinful attitude, the city fell in 586.

It would be rather easy to read this psalm as expressing the same unfounded presumption on the part of a sinful city. So many lines, on a first reading, would seem readily to bear such an interpretation: “God is in her palaces; He is known as her refuge. . . . In the city of our God; God will establish it forever. . . . Walk about Zion, and go all around her. Count her towers; mark well her bulwarks; consider her palaces.”

Interpreted as referring to the earthly city of Jerusalem, however, such affirmations are surely wide of the mark, for that city has been conquered many times in the course of history.

But Jerusalem is vastly more than Jerusalem. Back in the late fourth century the Egyptian Abba Nesteros, in words recorded by St. John Cassian, distinguished four meanings of the name Jerusalem in Holy Scripture. “One and the same Jerusalem,” he said, “can be taken in four senses: historically, as the city of the Jews; allegorically, as the Church of Christ; anagogically, as the heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all’; and tropologically, as the soul of man, which is frequently subject to praise or blame from the Lord under this title” (Conferences 14.8).

In which of these four senses, then, is Jerusalem meant in our present psalm? Certainly not in its literal sense, as we have seen, for Jerusalem has been captured by Babylonians, Romans, Arabs, and others.

Should Jerusalem be understood here, then, in what Cassian calls its tropological or moral sense, as “the soul of man”? There is much to recommend such a reading, for God certainly does surround the souls of His servants with every manner of blessing and protection. The confidence expressed in this psalm seems identical with that of the Apostle Paul: “If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:31–35). Such sentiments express the consoling doctrine of the divine assurance, according to which no one can snatch our souls from the hand of Christ (cf. John 10:28).

This is a true and valid meaning of our psalm, I think, unless such confidence be understood in the same presumptuous sense condemned by the Prophets. On occasion, one does discern such a sinful attitude among individuals deceived into believing that, once they have come to faith in Christ, they will inevitably be saved, even should they apostatize from that faith. The catch-phrase of these misdirected minds is “once saved, always saved,” a very unbiblical notion entertained only unto grave spiritual danger.

Surely what Cassian calls Jerusalem’s allegorical sense is also a proper understanding of our psalm, which speaks impressively of God’s protection of His Church throughout the centuries: “For behold, the kings assembled, they passed by together. They beheld and marveled; they were disturbed and fled away.” The Church of God has indeed beheld the rise and fall of empires, and this psalm is perhaps best prayed as an expression of gratitude to God for this fixed and lasting institution of His grace in this world: “We have received Your mercy, O Lord, in the midst of Your temple.” This is the one, holy, catholic house of God’s praise: “As is Your name, O God, so is Your praise to the ends of the earth.”

Wednesday, December 20

Revelation 18:9-24: The fall of Babylon is bad for business. It means very low profits on the stock market. Verses 12-13 list various products that won’t sell any more. The “futures” in frankincense and chariots are down by sixteen points, and the shekel is in free fall!

Everyone calls it a “crisis,” and they are right. In fact, John uses the Greek word krisis (“judgment”) to describe it (verse 10). The crash, when it comes, comes quickly, in a single hour (verses 10,17,19). John says that those who weep over Babylon do so from a distance (verse 10). That is, Babylon has mourners, but no helpers. At this final hour of her career, no one will stand with her. No one wants to be associated with her. She was part of an order in which true friendship had no place. It was an order founded on shared interests and profits, not on love. Babylon is bewailed, not for herself, but for her lost investments. In short, the fall of Babylon is bad for business, and John borrows heavily from Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27 in order to describe her plight.

We observe that John does not see Babylon fall. An angel tells him that it has already happened. John, that is to say, has no violent vision. There is no projection, here, of a vindictive spirit; it is, rather, the divine resolution of a cosmic problem. The fall of Babylon is not seen; it is revealed to John in a vision of light. John is not interested in revenge but in justice, in the setting right of the world order, and the right order of the world requires the overthrow of Babylon and idolatry, and materialism, and the hedonism for which Babylon stands as a symbol. Her fall is particularly related to her shedding of blood (verse 24). Babylon is thrown into the sea like a stone (verse 21). She is swallowed up in her own chaos (cf. Jeremiah 51:60-63; Luke 17:2,24-30).

John particularly notes the loss of musical instruments and technology, components of human life first devised by the sons of Cain (Genesis 4:17-30). Indeed, there has often been something a bit ambiguous about such music, morally considered. When King Nebuchadnezzar employed “the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music” for his idolatrous purposes, it was not the last instance when instrumental music served to deflect men from the worship of the true God. In fact, nonetheless, God designated musical instruments as appropriate to His own worship in the tabernacle and the temple. And, once again, in the Bible’s final book heaven resonates with the sounds of trumpet and harp, whereas the damned are forever deprived of such music! The sinful descendants of Cain, the very inventors of harp and flute, will never hear them again.

Thursday, December 21

Revelation 19:1-10: The previous chapter spoke of the destruction of Babylon, pictured as a woman dressed in scarlet. The present chapter speaks of a contrasting woman, dressed in white, who is called the Bride. A wedding is planned. There is no vision of the Bride just yet, however, nor does John specifically identify her. He will see and describe her in Chapter 21.

We begin the chapter with the “Alleluia.” Although our own experience may prompt us to associate that fine prayer with the sight and scent of lilies, here in Revelation it resounds against the background of smoke rising from a destroyed city. The worship scene portrayed here is related to victory over the forces of hell. The word “avenge” at the end of verse 2 reminds us there is a principle of vengeance built into the theological structure of history, for the judgments of God are true and righteous. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind when we read of this smoke ascending for ever and ever. The worship becomes so warm at verse 6 that Handel decided to set it to music.

By portraying the reign of God as a marriage feast, John brings together three themes, all of them familiar to the Christians of his day: First, the kingdom of God as a banquet, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6. Jesus interpreted the banquet, however, as a marriage feast (Luke 14:15-16). John stresses readiness for the feast (verse 7), much as we find in the parable of the ten maidens at the beginning of Matthew 25.

Second, the marriage theme itself, as a symbol of the union of God with man. We find this theme in the prophets (most notably Hosea, but also Isaiah and Jeremiah) and the New Testament (Ephesians 5:32, for instance). The Lamb, who is the groom here, has already been identified earlier in Revelation.

Third, the theme of the garments, which now become the clothing required for attendance at the feast. John has appealed to this imagery several times already (3:4; 6:11; 7:14). The identification of the white garments with righteous deeds puts one in mind of the parable in Matthew 22:11-13.

Friday, December 22

Revelation 19:11-21: The chapter continues on a different theme, warfare (verses 11-21). Jesus, pictured before as the Lamb, is here portrayed as a warrior on a white war horse (destrier). The emphasis is on His vindication of justice, the motif with which the chapter began. He is called “faithful and true,” adjectives referring to Him in 3:14. These adjectives should be considered especially in the context of martyrdom. That is to say, when a person is about to die a terrible death for the name of Jesus, “faithful and true” are the words he needs to know with respect to Jesus. Like the martyrs, Jesus is here clothed in white. His eyes (verse 12) are flames of fire, much as in John’s inaugural vision (1:12-16). His garment (verse 13) is spattered with blood, a detail we saw in 14:18-20. The literary inspiration of this portrayal is the canticle in Isaiah 63:1-3.

One of the Christological titles found here is “king of kings and lord of lords,” a title going back to the ancient Assyrian emperors, who were kings ruling over other kings. John tells us that this title appears on the “thigh,” of the Rider on the white horse. The thigh here is the place of the scabbard, where the sword hangs. It was common in antiquity to speak of the thigh as the place of the sword. With regard to Achilles, for example, Homer wrote: “And anger came on Peleus’s son, and within his shaggy breast the heart was divided two ways, pondering whether to draw from his thigh the sharp sword, driving away all those who stood between and kill the son of Atreus, or else to check his spleen within and keep down his anger” (Iliad 1.188-192). The same idiom is found in the Odyssey 11.231 and the Aeneid 10.788.

The exact idiom is likewise biblical; “Gird your sword on your thigh, everyone of you,” commanded Moses to the Levites (Exodus 32:27). The expression occurs twice in Judges 3 and in Psalms 45 (44):3. Finally, in the Song of Solomon there is a description of the sixty valiant men around the king, “each with his sword upon his thigh, against alarms by night” (3:8). The title on the Warrior’s thigh, then, is inscribed on His scabbard.

The sword itself, however, is described as coming forth from His mouth, as in John’s inaugural vision in the first chapter. This image, of course, identifies the sword with the word, as in Hebrews 4:12 and Ephesians 6:17. The image of God’s word as a sword seems to have been very common among the early Christians, so we are not surprised to see it here. The Rider Himself is called “the Word of God,” in the only instance of this expression with reference to Jesus outside of the beginning of John’s Gospel.

The summoning of the scavenger birds in verse 17 is reminiscent of Ezekiel 39, which describes the defeat of the armies of Gog.