Friday, August 14

Mark 14:32-42: The scene of Jesus praying in the Garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the Gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the Gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the Garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life.

From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the Agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic, Celsus, wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the Garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?” In truth, reasoned Celsus, if Jesus so “lamented” (oduretai) his coming death, he does not appear to have been especially brave, much less divine!

The Christian apologist, Origen, refuting Celsus in the following century, responded that the Gospel’s critic failed to appreciate Jesus’ complete acceptance of Father’s will in his coming death. His petition for deliverance—as desperate as it seemed to be—was immediately followed by the words, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done.” This sentiment, Origen went on, demonstrated Jesus’ “piety and greatness of soul,” his “firmness,” and his “willingness to suffer” (Contra Celsum 2.24).

Acts 26:13—26:22: After the decision of Festus to Rome, there follows another scene, Paul’s somewhat unofficial hearing before King Agrippa II and his sister/mistress Berenice. The purpose of this hearing is to help Festus identify the charges for which Paul will be sent to Rome for trial. Thus, Paul, having been tried before a synagogue and a governor, will now appear before a king (cf. Luke 21:12).

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.

Saturday, August 15

First Kings 20: This chapter starts with a Syrian siege of Samaria (verses 1-6). The fortress at Samaria, constructed during the reigns of Omri and Ahab, was almost impregnable; when it later fell to the Assyrians in 722, the latter force needed siege machines and three years to accomplish the task.

In response to the demands of the besiegers, King Ahab takes counsel of the tribal elders, who have taken refuge within the fortress. These encourage the king to resist boldly.

What happens next may surprise the reader, who knows that the Lord has already rejected Ahab (cf. 19:16). In spite of this rejection, the king still receives positive prophetic messages from the Lord (verses 13,28). That is to say, in spite of Israel’s schism from the covenanted throne at Jerusalem, in spite of the people’s continued infidelities, and in spite of the apostasy of Ahab, the Lord sustains His faithfulness.

This divine fidelity to the people of the Northern Kingdom—the schismatic kingdom—is of a piece with the material in the surrounding chapters, particularly the ministry of Elijah. The lesson drawn from this entire account indicates that the God of the Covenant does not suddenly lose interest in His people when a schism occurs. This lesson should be a source of comfort and strength to all Christians today, who are heirs to the many schisms which have divided them over the centuries; when schisms occur among the people of God, God is certainly displeased, but this in no way implies that redeeming grace is limited to just one side of a schismatic situation. Throughout the Book of Kings, we see grace poured out in both the south and the north, notwithstanding the schism between them.

Ahab, encouraged by the counsel of the elders and the word of the prophet, makes a very successful sortie against the Syrians, who have let their guard down—“Benhadad was drinking himself drunk in the encampment.” The armies of Syria’s vassal states panic, and the rest of the Syrian army retreats, but Ahab is warned that they will try again (verses 16-22).

The do try again in the spring, this time east of the Sea of Galilee, on the road joining Israel with Damascus. Once again, Ahab receives prophetic assurance (verse 28), apparently from the same prophet who had encouraged him earlier (says Josephus, Antiquities 8.14.3). When King Benhadad of Syria (known in Assyrian sources as “Hadadezer”) is captured, he agrees to a politically expedient treaty with Ahab (verses 30-34). Actually, these two men need one another, because the region is about to be invaded by a king more powerful than either, Shalmaneser III of Assyria. Israel and Syria will be parts of a coalition assembled to oppose the Assyrians at the Battle of Qarqar in 854 B.C.

Sunday, August 16

First Kings 21: Naboth was a conservative. He could even be called a hopeless conservative, because he was also an anachronism. The moving times had passed him by, and his desperate cause was doomed from the start.

But even to speak of Naboth’s “cause” is probably misleading, for he was certainly no activist nor agitator, no reactionary nor leader of a movement. On the contrary, Naboth was a quiet, private man who wanted only to be left alone, free to grow his grapes on the little plot his fathers had planted for roughly three centuries.

There had been a time—and not so very long before—when Naboth’s modest aspirations represented an ideal. Even a century earlier, during the reign of Solomon (961–922 BC), it was said that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Truth to tell, the Mosaic ordinance, taken literally, prescribed that no man’s farm, the land bequeathed by his father, should ever pass definitively out of the family. In due course, rather, those same inherited fields would be handed on to the next generation, so that household and real estate would remain forever inseparable (Leviticus 25:23; Numbers 36:7).

But by Naboth’s day the times had changed, and fewer folks felt tied so to their land. Indeed, in large measure Solomon himself, by introducing new mercantile enterprises and fiscal policies, had been responsible for the change. Thanks to the peace that David’s sword had brought to the region, international trade started to boom in the second half of the tenth century before Christ. By shrewd geopolitical maneuvers, Solomon joined the vast shipping interests of the Mediterranean to the extensive mercantile empire of Sheba, spread through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and waters more exotic still.

As a consequence of these adventures, new and lucrative employment was to be had in Israel’s expanding cities, jobs much easier than the long hours and back-bending labor of the small family farm. Little wonder, then, that many Israelites began to adopt a less-than-literal understanding of the ancient rules about not letting their land be lost from the family. Attracted by the prospect of a brighter future in the city, working at any of the scores of new professions spawned by Solomon’s economic success, many citizens simply forfeited the inheritance of their fathers.

This rich economic development meant, of course, fewer farmers and larger farms. This adjustment created no immediate problems of labor, nonetheless, because the larger farms were more efficiently cultivated with tools made from a recently smelted metal called iron. Plowshare blades, axes, hoes, and scythes were sturdier than ever. Furthermore, farmers learned to seal the walls of their wells and cisterns with calcium oxide, thus preserving the precious water needed for irrigation. Food production increased enormously.

The enhanced nutrition not only lowered the infant mortality rate, it also led to earlier puberty and menarche, thus increasing the birth rate. The larger and healthier population provided the expanding work force needed for the economic boom. In short, as far as the bankers and financiers were concerned, the times were bright, and the future looked brighter. Seldom any more did one hear his elders talk of “the good old days” prior to this new, advanced era.

Not every man, however, fell into step with the march of progress, and a hundred years later there were still some stubborn, godly souls who, reading the Mosaic mandates rather close to the letter, maintained the homesteads very much as their forebears had done. Naboth, whose story is told in 1 Kings 21, was one of these dogged holdouts. When King Ahab, coveting Naboth’s vineyard in Jezreel, sought to buy or swap for it, he was met by the owner’s emphatic “No!”

Because Ahab’s queen was a ruthless woman, not scrupulous about such matters as suborning perjury and shedding blood, Naboth paid for his conservatism with the price of his life. Like his contemporary Elijah, this brave vine-grower stood defenseless but defiant before raw power and cruel injustice. This baffling Naboth’s hearty answer to Ahab (21:3) may serve as a battle cry for every true conservative: “The Lord forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!”

Monday, August 17

First Kings 22: Besides surprised, Micaiah ben Imlah was feeling more than faintly puzzled. A messenger had just arrived from the palace in Samaria, summoning him to a large consultation of prophets that King Ahab had assembled to consider some new military option. Ahab, for reasons Micaiah could only guess, wanted him to be a part of that consultation. Why? After all, the king had never been especially happy about Micaiah’s earlier prophecies.

The time was 850 BC, roughly three years since King Ahab had joined forces with Ben-Hadad of Damascus, along with other allies in the region, to withstand the forces of the Assyrian emperor, Shalmaneser III, at the battle of Qarqar. So far, their ad hoc military league had been successful in discouraging further invasions from Assyria, and as long as there was a possible threat from that quarter, it seemed, peace would continue between Israel and Damascus (1 Kings 22:1).

But Ahab learned that peace with Damascus came at a price, and, notwithstanding the advantage he enjoyed by maintaining this good relationship with Ben-Hadad, it truly rankled him that the latter still occupied an ancient Israelite city, Ramoth Gilead. The secure return of all Israelite cities had been one of the pledges exacted from Ben-Hadad several years earlier, when Ahab had defeated him at the battle of Aphek (20:1–34). The pledge was not being honored. Besides, Ahab recalled, even at the battle of Qarqar, when he had joined forces with Ben-Hadad to meet the Assyrians, he himself had put no fewer than two thousand chariots on the field, eight hundred more than came from Damascus. Ahab was confident, then, that he could settle accounts properly with this Ben-Hadad with sufficient show of force.

Micaiah ben Imlah knew most of this already. What puzzled him was the fact that King Ahab was seeking his own prophetic word about attacking Damascus. After all, there were four hundred “yes prophets” at court already, who would tell his majesty exactly what he wanted to hear. Chief among them was Zedekiah ben Chenaanah, a thoroughly uncivil and surly fellow much given to theatrical flourish on matters of prophecy (22:11).

The royal messenger indicated to Micaiah that Ahab had little choice. King Jehoshaphat of Judah, he explained, on whom Ahab was relying for military assistance, was apparently having second thoughts on the business. Recently arrived at court in Samaria, the king of Judah was not entirely convinced by the enthusiasm of these four hundred “yes prophets” encouraging Ahab to go to war. Suspecting them to be nothing more than groveling sycophants, Jehoshaphat wanted to make certain that the planned attack on Damascus was really God’s will. So he requested that a new voice be added to the discussion. Ahab agreed to summon Micaiah, but reluctantly, for he added, “I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil” (22:2–8).

The king’s messenger to Micaiah pleaded with the prophet, then, not to upset the royal plans. Four hundred prophets, surely, could not be wrong. “Please,” he said, “let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak encouragement” (22:13). But Micaiah made him no such promise.

Arriving at the gate of Samaria, where the two kings were enthroned in regal splendor, Micaiah resolved to be sarcastic with Ahab. This fool of a king was determined to wage war? Well, then, let him. “Go and prosper,” Micaiah announced in a singsong voice, “for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!” Ahab, however, would not let the matter rest. When he insisted on knowing “the truth in the name of the Lord,” Micaiah gave him an undiluted dose, prophesying not only Israel’s defeat at the hands of Ben-Hadad, but also Ahab’s own death in the battle. Turning to Jehoshaphat when he heard these words, Ahab exclaimed: “Did I not tell you he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” (22:15–18).

Micaiah was promptly dispatched to prison until Ahab should return from battle, but he knew that the king would never come home. His own prophetic efforts that day had gone for naught, faced as he was with a moral buffoon forcing him, by a “no-win” question, to make a “no-win” prophecy. The Lord had determined Ahab’s destruction (22:19–23). Realizing this, Micaiah headed off to prison. At least he would never again be called to court!

Tuesday, August 18

Second Kings 1: The death of Ahab, because it effectively served as a death knell for the dynasty of Omri in the north, appropriately closed the First Book of Kings. Ahab’s two sons, Ahaziah (854-852) and Jehoram (852-841), will not amount to much. Already, on Mount Horeb, the Lord revealed to Elijah who would rule Israel next; indeed, this next part of the monarchical history presupposes the instructions Elijah received on Mount Horeb. There will be new dynasties in Syria and Israel, and a new prophet, Elisha, enters the scene.

The kingdom of Moab, east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, has been chafing under Israelite control for a long time, first under Jerusalem and then under Samaria. Learning of Ahab’s death, the Moabites declare their independence. As we shall see when we come to the story of King Mesha in chapter 3, they will have to fight for this independence.

Ahab’s son and successor, Ahaziah, when injured by a fall, seeks counsel about his injury from a prophet of Baal (whom the narrator—or perhaps a copyist—mockingly calls “Baalzebub,” or “lord of flies”). Elijah, instructed by an angel, meets the king’s delegation and gives them God’s view of this consultation. Evidently, the prophet does not identify himself. Consequently, when the delegation returns to the king, he questions them about the man’s appearance. Their description removes all doubt that the melancholy message the king receives—“you will surely die”—comes from the man Ahaziah’s father called “the trouble-maker of Israel” (First Kings 18:17).

Ahaziah determines to speak with Elijah in person, and to this end he dispatches other delegations, summoning the prophet to the royal presence. Until the Lord tells him to accept the summons, however, Elijah declines to go to the king, no matter how urgent and forceful the pressure to do so. In addition, the first two delegations themselves come to a bad end. The captain of the third delegation, desperate not to suffer a similar fate and reluctant to return to court without Elijah, pleads with the prophet. It is then that the Lord tells Elijah to go to Ahaziah and deliver the divine decree in person.

Ahaziah, accordingly, dies; the year is 852, two years after the Battle of Qarqar. His passing testifies to the authenticity of Elijah’s mission to Israel—“according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken.” As the deceased king has left no heir, the throne comes to Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram (852-841), who is also a son of Jezebel.

Wednesday, August 19

Second Kings 2: We come now to one of the most memorable scenes in Holy Scripture, Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire. No comment about the event could possibly be as interesting as the event.

Jewish and Christian imaginative tradition has always been fascinated by the simple fact that Elijah never died. Like Enoch, he was taken up by the Lord into heaven. Later on, the last of Israel’s canonical prophets, Malachi, foretold his return. This prophecy led to vast religious speculation, which has continued to the present day. Let us consider a single example of such speculation:

In Mark’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration (9:2-10), one of its most notable features is the curious way the evangelist speaks of the arrival of Moses and Elijah. Whereas Matthew and Luke say simply, “Moses and Elijah appeared” on the scene, Mark lays a special stress on Elijah. He writes, “Elijah appeared to them with Moses.” Not only does Mark mention Elijah before Moses, but the verb he uses, “appeared” (ophthe), is singular, not plural. Mark’s account is about the arrival of Elijah, Moses playing a rather secondary role.

Why is Elijah so prominent in Mark’s story of the Transfiguration? This emphasis can hardly be insignificant. For instance, Mark’s version of the Transfiguration is followed immediately by a question about the return of Elijah. Speaking of the three apostles that had just witnessed the scene, Mark writes, “And they asked Him, saying, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?'” As it stands in Mark, this question strikes one as curious, a bit odd, in context. Why, right between the Transfiguration and the healing of the little boy at the bottom of the mountain, do the apostles suddenly become inquisitive about the return of Elijah? It is rather strange.

If their question is rendered odd by its context, perhaps we should look more closely at that context. What I propose to do here is remove the Transfiguration from Mark’s story and have a look at the context without it. If this procedure seems unusual, let me explain. I don’t intend to alter or rearrange the biblical passage. On the contrary, I simply want to understand how the Transfiguration story is set within its context in Mark. This is why I propose to examine that context without the Transfiguration. This is something on the order of picturing a ring apart from its gem, which is a perfectly reasonable thing for a jeweler to do.

Now, if we remove the story of the Transfiguration from Mark’s sequence for a moment, we will notice something very peculiar and interesting. Without the Transfiguration, here is the way chapter nine of Mark begins:

And He said to them, “Amen, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” Then He answered and told them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.”

We immediately notice that this hypothetical narrative sequence flows more logically (if this is the word I want) than the actual story as Mark tells it. The apostles’ question about the return of Elijah no longer seems odd or abrupt. It appears, rather, as a natural and expected response. The Lord predicts, “there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power,” and the disciples answer, “Well, all right, but isn’t Elijah supposed to come first?” That is to say, the narrative sequence makes perfect sense without the Transfiguration.

Third, if the sequence is completely logical without the Transfiguration, then what does the Transfiguration add to the story? This question brings me to the substance of my argument; namely, in Mark’s account the Transfiguration seems to have been inserted (whether by Mark or by an earlier source on which he relies—this question is not important to our purpose) into an earlier narrative sequence, because it does, in fact, directly address the question of the return of Elijah. Indeed, this is exactly what Mark says with respect to the Transfiguration: “Elijah appeared”!

We see, then, how the Transfiguration story functions in the sequence of Mark’s narrative. Its position serves to answer a question about Elijah’s return. He came back at the Transfiguration! In the theology of Mark, Elijah’s arrival at the Transfiguration of our Lord places that event into the context of a specific prophecy abut Elijah: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5).

Thursday, August 20

Second Kings 3: The present chapter, concerned with Israel’s dealings with the Moabite nation, testifies to Elisha’s prophetic involvement in geopolitics.

Omri, the father of Ahab, had subjected the Moabites thirty years before. Indeed, the Moabite king in the present chapter, Mesha, left us an important inscription, which speaks of that subjection and of his own rebellion against Israel. That inscription reads, in part, “Omri, king of Israel, had oppressed Moab for many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son succeeded him, and he also said, ‘I will oppress Moab.’ In my days he said this, but I have triumphed over him and his house, and Israel has perished forever.” Needless to say, the present chapter of Kings gives a somewhat different version of Mesha’s rebellion.

What Mesha did accomplish was the fortification of the northern routes from Israel, which obliged Jehoram to approach Moab from the south—“by way of the wilderness of Edom” (verse 8). For this venture, he needed the cooperation of Judah and Edom; this he secured by establishing a coalition with King Jehoshaphat and the Edomites (verse 7). The formation of this coalition is to be dated between 852 and 848.

The southern approach to Moab lay through the desert, through which the coalition force was obliged to march for a whole week, exhausting their water supply. In desperation they sought prophetic counsel from Elisha, whom they knew to have been the servant of Elijah (verses 9-12).

Elisha, who knew a thing or two about Baal worship in Israel, first suggested— sarcastically—that these three kings seek counsel from Baalist prophets. In the context of the current shortage of water, this sarcasm recalled the famous drought of Ahab’s time, the drought that ended when Elijah killed the prophets of Baal.

At last, however, Elisha prophesies an abundance of water to supply the needs of the coalition army, and the next morning a flood flows from the south—that is, from the very desert. The besieged Moabites, when they saw the water on the red sandstone hills to the south, imagined it was blood, and they concluded that the three partners of the coalition must have slaughtered one another during the night. (In Hebrew the very word, “Edom,” means “red” and is a cognate of dam, which means “blood.”

Rushing out to despoil the besieging camp, the Moabites were routed by the forces of the coalition. King Mesha, in desperation, offered his own son in sacrifice, thus bringing “a great wrath on Israel.” Apparently this terrible gesture rallied the forces of Moab, so that they dispersed the coalition and gained independence from Israel. Contrary to Mesha’s claim, however, it is not true that “Israel has perished forever.”

Friday, August 21

Second Kings 4: Having already examined the ways in which Elijah resembles Moses, let us look at the signs of a similar resemblance in the case of Elisha. These have to do chiefly his ministry as a worker of miracles. Indeed, Moses and Elisha are clearly the Old Testament’s two great thaumaturges. This is not to say that Elisha is portrayed as a miracle-worker in order to make him look like another Moses. Indeed, the very opposite presumption is made here. That is to say, it is presumed here that the Bible portrays Elisha as resembling Moses the miracle-worker because he did, in fact, work miracles, as Moses had done.

Nonetheless, that point understood, it is reasonable to suggest that the author of Kings does tell his story in such a way as to accentuate the similarities between the two men in this matter of miracles. In this respect it is worth examining the context and sequence of 2 Kings 2—6 rather closely.

First, the prophetic ministry of Elisha begins where that of Elijah left off; namely, with the miraculous parting of the waters (2:14), this repetition of the miracle putting one in mind, of course, of both Moses and Joshua. Next, in grudging response to the persistent requests made by “the sons of the prophets,” Elisha authorizes a search for Elijah’s body. Knowing what had happened to Elijah, Elisha is hardly surprised at their failure to find it (2:15–17), and the attentive reader will remember that, among the last recorded facts about Moses, it was said, “no one knows his grave to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6).

Such is the context in which Elisha begins his ministry as a worker of miracles. These latter immediately come in a fairly rapid sequence reminiscent of the ten plagues of Moses. And, like those Mosaic plagues, these recorded miracles of Elisha are also ten in number: the purification of the spring at Jericho (2:19–21), the efficacious cursing of his foes (2:23–25), the wondrous flow of water (3:16–20), the miraculous production of oil (4:1–7), the raising of the dead boy (4:18–37), the purging of the pot of stew (4:38–41), the multiplication of food (4:42–44), the cleansing of Naaman’s leprosy and its transferal to Gehazi
(5:1–27), the floating ax head (6:1–7), and the blinding and enlightenment of the Syrian soldiers (6:8–23).

As both prophet and miracle-worker, Elisha stands in Holy Scripture as a very special foreshadowing of Christ. In truth, except for Moses, no other Old Testament figure so completely combines both of those characteristics of our Lord as does this ninth-century prophet, who was also a healer of leprosy, provider of food and water, and raiser of the dead. It is particularly proper, then, that Elisha appears as an illustration in Jesus’ first recorded public words, the sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. In that sermon, the Lord recalls that “many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27).