Friday, May 18

John 17:20-26: Jesus, having prayed for Himself (verses 1-4) and for His immediate disciples (verses 9-17), now prays for the whole People of God, those who “believe in me” through the testimony of the Apostles. Jesus’ prayer for this larger group is likewise manifold; it includes the unity of the believers, the proclamation of the Gospel to the world, and the revelation of the divine glory: “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in me, and I in You . . . that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them as You have loved me . . . that they may behold my glory which You have given me.”

We observe that the three-fold structure of this prayer of Jesus corresponds to the triple concern of the officiating priest on Yom Kippur, as prescribed in Leviticus 16: First—and second—the priest makes the sin offering (hahatta’th), “which is for himself, and to make atonement (kipper) for himself and for his household” (Leviticus 16:6, 11). Third, having sprinkled the blood of the victim on the mercy seat (kapporet), the priest offers another victim, “which is for the people” (16:14-15).

Thus, Leviticus directs specific attention to the triple concern of Yom Kippur, during the ritual of which the priest “makes atonement (kipper) [1] for himself, [2] for his household, and [3] for all the assembly of Israel” (16:17). John’s parallel with the Levitical text is striking.

Ezekiel 48: This highly schematic distribution of the Holy Land (into long narrow strips running east/west) is marked by several features: First, it is based on the disposition of the temple and adjoining areas as described in Chapter 45. Second, it is completely theoretical, inasmuch as the majority of the twelve tribes of Israel no longer existed as such; most of the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians in 722 had long been assimilated into the peoples of Mesopotamia. Third, the division of the land differs very significantly from the ancient division from the time of Joshua. If the tribes of Gad and Zebulon had somehow managed to return, they would have been very surprised to find themselves living in the Negev Desert (verses 26-27) instead of the fertile fields of Galilee!

In short, there are considerable difficulties attendant on interpreting this chapter of Ezekiel as a literal description of Israel’s return to the Holy Land in 538. Like the mystical waters of the previous chapter, this geographical disposition should be interpreted in the light of New Testament ecclesiology, the twelve tribes representing the whole people of God, which is the Church of Jesus Christ.

These twelve tribes will each be honored with a gate entering the new Jerusalem (48:30-35; cf. Revelation 21:12). Instead of Yerushalaim (Jerusalem), the city will be called Adonaishammah (“the Lord is there”). This is a prophecy of God’s New Testament Church, on which the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost.

Saturday, May 19

Psalms 33 (Greek & Latin 32): For the first time, the Book of Psalms uses an important expression—“new song,” shir chadash—which will later appear four more times in the Psalter and once in Isaiah: “Sing to Him a new song” (see Psalms 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10). The praise of the righteous, of the just man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose mouth is no deceit, is characterized by a particular kind of newness, of renewal, of new life, inasmuch as “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The song of the Lord’s redeemed is a new song, for they adhere to the new covenant in Christ’s blood and “serve in the newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).

All Christian praise of God is a participation in the liturgy of heaven where the saints gather in glory about the Lamb in the presence of the Throne. According to Revelation 5:9, our “new song” has to do with the opening of the seals of the great scroll by the Lamb who gave His life for our redemption: “You are worthy to take the scroll, / And to open its seals; / For You were slain, / And have redeemed us to God by Your blood.” The new song is for those who have been made “kings and priests to our God” (5:10). The new song is “the song of the Lamb” (15:3). The new song, according to Revelation 14:1–3, is sung by the redeemed as they gather about the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is the folk of whom our psalm says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”

Therefore, when the present psalm summons us to the “new” praise of God, it is to a newness that will never grow old. Indeed, it will grow ever newer as, day by day, we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and our “youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 102:5).

The call to God’s praise in Psalm 33 looks explicitly to the absolute fidelity of His word and work: “For the word of the Lord is right, and all His work is done in truth.” How mighty is God’s word? “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made. And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. . . For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.”

Throughout this psalm there is a sustained contrast between the reliability of the Lord and the unreliability of everything purely human: “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he makes the plans of the peoples of no effect.” In contrast, “the counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations.” This “counsel of the Lord,” these “plans of His heart,” are the contents of that great and mysterious scroll opened by the Lamb who was slain. This is “the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4), “the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (1:9). By divine grace we redeemed share in “the fellowship of the mystery” (3:9).

Pentecost Sunday, May 20

1 Samuel 1: Among the characters from Holy Scripture used as models of prayer in traditional Christian literature, few appear as often as Hannah, the
mother of Samuel. Starting with Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome near the dawn of the third century, those who wished to be instructed in the ways of prayer have had recourse to Hannah’s example, as contained in the first two chapters of First Samuel.

When Hannah is introduced, she is contrasted with Elkanah’s “other wife,” who used the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh as an opportunity to render life miserable for barren Hannah. This latter she provoked severely, says the Sacred Text, “to make her miserable.” The provocation was not unintentional, we are assured, nor did it happen only once: “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat.” It is easy to picture Peninnah looking forward to that annual pilgrimage with the family; it was perhaps her favorite time of the year, providing her the forum for feeling superior and spreading discouragement.

Now, as it happened, the God who brings good out of evil caused everything to work out well for Hannah, and the story soon turns into an account of grace and divine visitation.

The wives of Elkanah bear comparison to the wives of Abramah. Even on an initial reading, the stories of these two women, Sarah and Hannah, are strikingly similar: First, each woman is introduced as barren. Second, both of them have “rivals” within their marriages: Hagar in the case of Sarah, Peninnah in the case of Hannah.

Third, both Sarah and Hannah are portrayed as the “senior” wives in their respective marriages. Fourth, both barren women are treated contemptuously by their rivals (Genesis 16:4-5; 1 Samuel 1:6-7). Fifth, each of them—Sarah and Hannah—at last conceives a son through the fulfillment of a divine promise.

Other writers developed the parallel even further, comparing Elkanah’s two wives, not only to the two wives of Abraham, but also to Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob.

In each of these three cases, the barren wife, who conceived later in life and by divine intervention, was contrasted with the more fruitful wife who was less loved.

Furthermore, Holy Scripture develops the correspondence between Sarah and Hannah in order to introduce two major narratives of covenant: the covenant with Abraham in Genesis, and the covenant with David in the Books of Samuel.

In each story, the barren woman signifies weakness and imperfection—the human condition—to which God directs the grace of His covenant. The author of Samuel readily found this covenant pattern in Genesis.

Monday, May 21

Acts 2:22-28: Peter quotes Psalms 16, in which he detects a prophecy of our Lord’s Resurrection. Even though it was King David saying these things, the prophetic voice speaking more deeply in the psalm, according to St. Peter, is the voice of Christ. As the forefather and type of Christ, David was speaking in the tones of prophecy. God’s holy one, His Hasid, is the Messiah.

And as David prayed this psalm in persona Christi, looking forward to the one who was to come, so do Christians, when they pray this psalm, identify themselves in hope with the risen Christ, for we too will rise with Him: “And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power” (1 Cor. 6:14); “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14); “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:11).

1 Samuel 2: There are parallels between the canticle of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 and the canticle of David in 2 Samuel 22. Indeed, these canticles form an “inclusion” to the original Book of Samuel. Thus, in David’s canticle God is praised for having kept the promises contained in Hannah’s canticle.

For example, while Hannah says of the Lord that “He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness” (1 Samuel 2:9), David will say of Him, “He makes my feet like the feet of deer” (2 Samuel 22:34) and “You enlarged my path under me; so my feet did not slip. I have pursued my enemies and destroyed them” (22:37–38).

Once again, too, there is the shared image of the shrine or temple. Whereas Hannah’s canticle is chanted at the house of the Lord in Shiloh, David’s canticle says of the Lord, “He heard my voice from
His temple” (22:7). This parallel is all the more striking inasmuch as the new temple has not yet been constructed.

Because the Davidic rise and reign form the substance of the Book of Samuel, these various parallels between the prayers of Hannah and David are hardly surprising. Indeed, Hannah ends her canticle with a promise and prophecy about David, saying of the Lord, “He will give strength to His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10). This theme is later taken up in David’s own canticle, which declares that God is “my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge” (2 Samuel 22:3).

We may observe, in this respect, that Hannah’s canticle near the beginning of Samuel serves much the same purpose as Mary’s Magnificat near the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, both of them introducing themes about the putting down of the mighty and the raising up of the lowly. In fact, one wonders if there has ever been written a commentary on the Magnificat that did not mention its many lines and sentiments shared with the canticle of Hannah.

Tuesday, May 22

1 Samuel 3: This is the chapter in which the Lord directly reveals Himself to Samuel. When the chapter begins, Samuel is a sort of boy acolyte; when it ends, he is a prophet of renown throughout Israel.

Shiloh had been a central shrine of Israel for about a century and a half, ever since Joshua fixed it as the meeting place of the twelve tribes (Joshua 18:1). It was from there that the tribal representatives went forth to survey the Promised Land, and back to Shiloh they returned to cast lots for the division of the land (18:8–10; 19:51). During the ensuing period of Israel’s judges, 1200 to 1050, Shiloh remained a regular place of pilgrimage (Judges 21:19). At some point during that period, the Ark of the Covenant, previously placed at Bethel (Judges 20:26–27), was moved to Shiloh. It was near the Ark, within the shrine, that the boy Samuel slept, at least sometimes.

The scene begins in darkness: nighttime and no vision (verse 1); diminished eyesight (verse 2); a lamp soon to go out (verse 3). An older order is about to be extinguished, as was prophesied in the previous chapter. God’s Word, now to be revealed, will be “the aroma of death unto death” to the house of Eli and “the aroma of life unto life” in the ministry of Samuel” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

Up to the present, Samuel has not known God directly but only through the quasi-parental ministry of Eli (verse 7). His state was like that of Jacob, who was familiar with the Lord only as the God of his father and grandfather (Genesis 28:13). Jacob was brought to a personal and immediate knowledge of God only through more mature experience (28:21; 32:30). So it is with Samuel, whom the Lord now summons by name. It is no longer Eli to whom he must have recourse (verses 8-9).

The triple summons to Samuel (verses 4,6,10) dramatizes the account of his prophetic call. In accord with the instruction of Levi (verse 9), he presents himself as the Lord’s “servant,” thus taking his place in the prophetic succession of Moses, “the servant of the Lord” (Exodus 4:10; Numbers 12:7; Wisdom of Solomon 10:16; Hebrews 3:5; Clement of Rome 4:12; 43:1; 51:3; Pseudo-Barnabas 14:4).

The revelation to Samuel, Eli recognizes, is the Word of the Lord. Five times in these few verses the old man describes this revelation with either a nominal or predicate form of the Hebrew root dbr, “to speak.” This is the usual form by which the Bible refers to a prophetic message.

Like David, later in this book, Eli recognizes the righteousness of the Lord’s judgment (verse 18). His chronic failures, however, have already gone to seed in the generation of his sons. It is too late to call them back. The historical judgment of God is irreversible (cf. 2 Kings 22:14-17).

Wednesday, May 23

1 Samuel 4: There are two parts to the present chapter: first, the loss of the Ark to the Philistines (verses 1-11); second, the death of Eli and the birth of Ichabod (verses 12-22).

After an initial defeat at the hands of their enemy (verses 1-2), the Israelite elders imagine that the Ark’s bare presence on the battlefield will assure the army of divine help in the next encounter (verse 3). Their reasoning on this point is doubtless inspired by the memory of the ark’s significant role in the Battle of Jericho.

However, those warriors commanded by Joshua at Jericho were assured of victory by the Lord Himself (Joshua 6:2-5), and they bore the Ark, not as a lucky charm or a magic talisman, but as an expression of their faith (6:6-8). In contrast, the elders in the present text forget that the Lord bases His judgments on the content of hearts. How can they imagine that the Lord does not regard the hearts of the two scoundrels who currently carry the Ark? Ironically, the Philistines seem to have more respect for the Ark than do the Israelites (verses 7-9). In the end, Israel’s losses in the second battle (verse 10) greatly outnumber those in the first.

The second scene of this chapter (verses 12-22) opens with the arrival of the messenger who runs 18 miles from the battlefield to the city of Shiloh, bringing tidings of the disaster (verse 12). Eli, apparently waiting at a gate different from the one entered by the messenger, becomes the last person to hear the message. The scene grows in drama: blind Eli, hearing the uproar and lamentation in the city, demands to know the reason (verses 13-16). We learn much of the soul of the old man from the fact that he is anxious less for the safety of his sons than for the fate of the Ark. Hence, the full effect of the message seizes him only when he learns of the seizure of the Ark: Falling backward from a stool, he dies of a broken neck (verse 17-18).

The ironic climax of the tragedy arrives when the pregnant wife of Phineas suddenly goes into labor, in reaction to learning the loss of her husband and father-in-law, along with the defeat of the army and the capture of the Ark. She dies after giving birth to a boy, on whom she confers the symbolic name Ichabod—“glory gone.”

This name is based on the important Hebrew noun kavod, “glory.” This is the glory associated with God’s presence with the Ark. This child, then, born on the day of Ark’s capture, will be a living reminder of the Lord’s judgment on the priestly family of Shiloh. Although some prophets continued to dwell at Shiloh (cf. 1 Kings 14:2, 4), its priesthood settled at Nob (1 Samuel 14:3; 22:11).

Samuel moves back to Ramah (7:17), his birthplace, and the Ark, though returned to Israel, will never again be installed at Shiloh. The Lord has abandoned the site, making it a symbol of the fate awaiting any city that forsakes His covenant (Jeremiah 7:12, 14).

Thursday, May 24

1 Samuel 5: The victorious Philistines now take the captured Ark of the Covenant and place it, as a votive offering, in the temple of their god, Dagon, in the city of Ashdod. Although they intended this ritual to signify the subjection of Israel’s God to Dagon, the latter does not fair well in the encounter (verses 1-5).

Dagon was a local Syrian divinity adopted by the Philistines on their arrival in the region, roughly 1200 B.C. Although the exact derivation of his name is disputed, it is generally agreed that Dagon was a fertility god, and local legend made him the father of Baal. He had more than one temple in the region (cf. Judges 16:23; 1 Chronicles 10:10). Jonathan Maccabaeus destroyed his temple at Ashdod in 147 B.C. (1 Maccabees 10:83-84; 11:4).

The details of this story—particularly Dagon’s hands—render it curiously similar to the account of the ravished and slain woman in Judges (19:22-29). When her body is found, the woman lies at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold, similar to the hands of the prostrate Dagon. The woman is subsequently dismembered.

The Lord of the Ark, having disposed of the Philistine god, now turns to deal with the Philistines, wreaking havoc in three cities of their pentapolis (verses 8-12). The reader is reminded of the plagues visited on Egypt—both animal pests (Exodus 7:26—8:27; 10:1-15) and bodily affliction (Exodus 9:8-12), including death (Exodus 12:29-36). As the Ark is moved from city to city, Philistine panic intensifies. Its mere arrival at Ekron is sufficient to cause consternation, prior to any actual damage! In these descriptions, the biblical author is enjoying himself immensely.

The Philistines had barely time to celebrate their supposed triumph when they began to suspect their mistake: They had swallowed what they could not digest. After a single night they found their god humiliated—and after a second night dismembered—by the object they had captured. Dagon was now unsafe in his own shrine. Israel’s Lord began to show the conqueror of the prematurely partying Philistines. The tables were turned. Instead of parading the Ark as the spoils in a victory parade, its transport becomes the Lord’s own victory march. The Philistines began to know how ancient Pharaoh felt, when the full force of the ten plagues made him eager for Israel to leave Egypt.

The triumph of the “defeated” Ark within Philistia was a prophecy of the victory of “defeated” Jesus over the forces of the nether world. Like the Philistines, Death had swallowed what it could not digest. St. John Chrysostom said it best: “The Savior’s death has set us free. ? He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh . . .. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth and encountered Heaven.”

Friday, May 25

1 Samuel 6: In view of the havoc and consternation caused among the Philistines by reason of its presence among them, the Ark’s captors determine to send it back to Israel. Seven months of torture have proved quite enough (verse 1).

Sensing they are out of their depth, these political leaders of Philistia—the heads of the five cities—resolve to find a religious solution to their problem. They are wary. Accordingly, they seek the guidance of the local religious experts: priests and shamans (verse 2). We recall that Pharaoh sought the counsel of such men, back in the days when Moses was a problem.

The counsel given by the priests and shamans is complex. There are two stages in the instruction:

First, a sort of reparation offering must accompany the return of the Ark. The need for this ritual gesture was perceived from the fact that the Philistines continued to be tormented by rodents and the physical malady described in the previous chapter. The Philistines fear that these problems may continue even after the Ark is returned, unless they effect some kind of reconciliation with Israel’s God (verse 3). They are advised, therefore, to fashion small sculptures—ornaments, as it were—to represent the hemorrhoids and the rodents (verses 4-5).

The obvious parallel here is with the account in Exodus, according to which the Israelites, when Pharaoh finally compelled them to leave Egypt, took gold and jewelry with them (Exodus 3:21; 11:2; 12:35-36; Psalms 105 [104]:37). This parallel serves mainly to heighten the improbability of jewelry shaped like hemorrhoids and mice.

The Philistines, for their part, compare their plight to that of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In both cases, hardness of heart is the great danger, and the Philistines are resolved to take instruction from Pharaoh’s mistake (verse 6; Exodus 8:15,32; 9:34).

Second, great care must be taken in the transport of the Ark back to Israel. Indeed, this transport becomes a sort of trial to determine whether or not the Philistines are really dealing with Israel’s God or simply circumstances of chance. Accordingly, the religious authorities advise, a brand-new cart must be constructed, one never used for ordinary work. This cart must be drawn by nursing cows that have never been yoked. These must be separated from their suckling calves and, of their own accord, take the correct road to the nearest Israelite town. This complicated process, the Philistines reason, will guarantee that mere chance is not involved in the outcome. It is a sort of trial by ordeal.

When the Ark arrives at Bethshemesh, however, it is no less dangerous to the Israelites than it was to the Philistines. The rejoicing citizens of the place, apparently curious to learn if the contents of the Ark had been disturbed, unwisely open it and look inside. Being Levites (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:44), they should know better (Numbers 4:20), and they pay a heavy price for their presumption.

The tragedy at Bethshemesh is the climax in this story of the Ark’s power, which is felt by Israelite and Philistine alike. Both groups received the Ark with joy, but they are equally eager to be rid of it, once they experience their inability to control it.