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The Design of the Scriptures - A First Reader in Biblical Theology by Robert C. Dentan


Robert C. Dentan was Professor of Old Testament Literature and Interpretation at the General Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of The King and His Cross; Preface to Old Testament Theology; The Holy Scriptures: A Survey (a volume in the Seabury Press Church’s Teaching Series), and The Apocrypha, Bridge of the Testaments. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Richard Kendall.


Part I – History


I. PARADISE LOST

Genesis 2:4b—3:24 Matthew 4:1—11; Luke 22:39—44;
I Corinthians 15:21—22, 45—49

Biblical history starts with Adam and the garden, where man begins to react as a free agent to the world in which God has placed him. The preceding material in Genesis (1:1—2:4a), which is by another and later hand) is concerned solely with the activity of God; although in narrative form, it is doctrine rather than history.

The story of the garden is, in reality, the story of Everyman: it is not concerned with events which happened once for all in a far-off mythical time, but with what has happened, and is happening, in the lives of all men everywhere. The very name Adam suggests that this is the proper interpretation of the story, since in Hebrew it means simply "man." This account of man’s defection from his Maker is not placed at the beginning of Bible history because there really was a time when snakes could speak and trees bore fruit capable of conferring immortality or secret knowledge, but because there is no other story in the world’s literature which pictures so clearly the essential human situation. Here we see mankind both in its high dignity and pitiful distress. We see man created for the noblest of destinies, called to serve God and live in fellowship with Him, but reduced instead to the status of an outcast, a sinner and a slave to sin, in desperate need of redemption from bondage to his sins and to his own corrupt self-centeredness.

As is true with many other stories, the point of it is clearest when we look first of all at the conclusion. In Genesis 3: 16—19 we find a description of actual human life as we know it and as the ancient Hebrews also knew it. The passage deliberately ignores the happier aspects of life and concentrates on the sorrow and frustration which .the author sees as the more basic facts of human existence. It takes only a slight effort of the imagination to realize that the description is accurate. These are the things, furthermore, which need to be explained. If God is good, one is not surprised to find goodness in His world. But how can one explain the world’s agony and grief? This is the greatest of life’s enigmas and our story gives the biblical answer to it.

When we now turn back to the beginning of the narrative we see what God intended man’s life to be. The language and the conceptions are those of ancient Hebrew myth, but these are not the essence of the story. What the Bible seeks to tell us in this way is what God intended us to be and what in fact we have become. God created man for happiness. He put him in a garden called Eden (in Hebrew, "pleasantness"), provided with all he needed for daily life and with immortality within his grasp (2:9). Here man was intended to live a happy and useful existence, doing God’s work (v. 15), master of the lower creation (19), living in friendly converse with his own kind (18, 21—25).

But in order that man might learn to be free, able to make moral decisions and to give his God a love that was entirely unconstrained, he was given the power to observe or not to observe the single restriction that was placed upon him. It was God’s clearly expressed will that he should not eat of the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil" (2:16—17). Scholars have discussed at great length the meaning of this term, but it is unnecessary to go into it here, since the tree itself is not really significant. It is merely the symbol of man’s area of free moral choice. But here we must notice one other important figure in the tale—the serpent, the Tempter. He is the symbol of a dark, mysterious power, not ourselves, which makes for evil in the world. We cannot perhaps satisfactorily explain his existence, but we know he is here. He can be felt all too plainly in the tensions and temptations of our modern world, and when men are left to themselves, they tend to make friends with the Tempter rather than with God. When the test came, both the man and the woman failed. They listened to the Tempter and determined to do their own will instead of God’s.

This, says the writer, is the source of all the tragedy of human existence. We do not have to look far to recognize the man and the woman in this story, for it is the story of every human life, the story of our preference for our will instead of God’s, of our childish readiness to listen to the flattering voice of the Tempter who pretends that our natural destiny is not to serve the God who made us, but to become little gods ourselves (3:5). And the story also tells us that "we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves." The garden gates are closed and the way back is barred. Perhaps we should prefer to say that not God but we ourselves have closed the gate and barred the way. Man cannot return at his own volition. Only God by His grace can restore to us the paradise we have lost and the hope of everlasting life we have forfeited.

Unable by his own strength to bring order into his disordered world, man must wait in patient faith and hopeful trust for God to act and restore to him the full measure of his forfeited inheritance. The rest of the Bible story is essentially the story of how God has done this.

From this sad beginning we now move on to trace "the history of our salvation."

This is also the moment to look ahead into the distant future and catch at least a glimpse of the goal toward which that history was moving. If we turn to Matthew 4: 1—11 we read of another temptation which ended as triumphantly as this did disastrous1y. And if we then turn to Luke 22:39— 44 we come upon another scene in a garden where what Adam lost was won for us again by Jesus, who, confronted by a far more agonizing decision, set his Father’s will above his own. And, finally, in a few brief verses in I Corinthians 15:21—22, 45—49 we find the Apostle Paul telling his readers that the story which began in Eden has now reached its proper end and that we who are so obviously children of Adam, the man of earth, can become like Christ, the man of heaven.

 

II. THE COVENANT OF FAITH

Genesis 12:1—4; 15; 22:1—19; Hebrews 11:8—12; Galatians 3:7—8, 26—29

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are composed, for the most part, of stories drawn from ancient Hebrew myth or folklore. They are tales told by the men of Israel around the campfire or at evening by the city gate, partly no doubt for entertainment, but chiefly to try and provide some explanation for the otherwise insoluble mysteries of the world in which they found themselves. Some of the material, such as that in Genesis 1, is the product of late theological reflection, but most of it consists of stories, simple and naive in form, which can frequently be paralleled in the literature of neighboring peoples, although none of the parallels begins to approach the biblical stories in the loftiness of their conception of God and the profundity of their understanding of the human situation. The theological and moral superiority of the Bible stories seems to show that God Himself was at work among the people who told them. These simple stories picture to us, as could be done in no other way, the majesty and righteousness of God the Creator and the sad state of man, reduced by sin to a pitiable caricature of his true self. The stories of the Fall, of Cain and Abel, of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, all show some aspect of the havoc man has made of his world.

But these opening chapters are only the prologue to the story the Bible really has to tell. They set the stage and show the immense gulf which now separates our fallen, perverted human nature from the goodness of its Maker. The essential Bible story, the story of the bridging of the gulf, the reversing of man’s downward trend, begins in Genesis 2, and the first character to appear on the scene is Abraham. From a literary standpoint, the story of Abraham marks the transition from the sphere of myth to that of quasi historical legend. While we cannot be sure that Abraham was a real historical figure, yet in broad outline the story of his life is one that might have happened. The historical setting can be identified and the local color is in many cases remarkably accurate. Scholars are much less skeptical than they were a generation ago about the possibility of there being at least a core of genuine folk memories behind the stories of the patriarchs.

But the importance of Abraham is not tied down to his existence as an historical figure; it lies rather in the place he occupies as a symbol of God’s special relationship to the people of Israel. The men of both the Old and New Testaments were convinced that God long ago had chosen Israel to be His own people, to serve Him in a special way. (This is what is called, in biblical language, the doctrine of Israel’s election.) Just as God makes use of special persons—great teachers and leaders—to be His agents and messengers, so He once chose a special nation, Israel, and prepared it to be a source of "light to the Gentiles" (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32). In biblical tradition the figure of Abraham is regarded as marking the point at which God’s election of Israel began.

The first of our selections (Gen. 12:1—4) tells how God called Abraham to leave his ancestral home in the broad plain of Mesopotamia and cross the desert to live in a new and unfamiliar land. His unhesitating obedience shows him to possess the one quality required above all others in a true man of God, the quality of perfect faith. The two stories told of him in Genesis 15 and 22:1—19 give further illustrations that the kind of faith he had—and the kind which is required of men today—was not mere blind acceptance of unprovable propositions and promises, but rather a complete trust in the kindly purposes of God and an entire willingness to place the direction of life in the hands of a Heavenly Father. The great teachers of the Bible, from Isaiah to St. Paul, insist that faith, of the quality of Abraham’s, is the one indispensable ingredient of the religious life, the first and basic condition for establishing a right relationship with God. If we now turn to the passage in Hebrews (11:8—12) we shall be ready to appreciate the almost poetic beauty of the unknown author’s description of Abraham as the chief of the heroes of faith.

Because Abraham believed in God’s promises, God "counted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6) and entered into a covenant with him, a permanent relationship of friendship and mutual obligation. In the biblical view, man’s relationship to God is always within the framework of a particular covenant; but the way of entrance into the covenant is, as St. Paul so clearly demonstrated for both the Testaments, the way of faith, the kind of faith dramatized in the story of Abraham. The covenant of which we read in Genesis i~: i8 was made with Abraham and his descendants, but its blessings were intended, from the beginning, for "all the families of the earth" (Gen. 12:3). Israel’s covenant with God was not established as a means of self-glorification (though she sometimes forgot this), but as an instrument by which the whole of humankind might be restored to God in love and obedience. This purpose was at last realized in the coming of Christ, when the national limitations of the covenant were done away with and its blessings became ours too, for we are Christ’s and therefore also "Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:7—8, 26—29).

 

III. THE COVENANT OF LAW

Exodus 3:1—17; 14:15—31; 19:1—6; 20:1—17; Romans 7:7—14; John 1:17

Abraham is important largely as a symbol of Israel’s chief article of faith, that God had chosen her for Himself and had made a covenant with her. But if Abraham ismainly a legendary and symbolic figure, there can be little doubt that Moses was a truly historical one. Abraham was the traditional father of the nation and therefore the one with whom, ideally, the covenant was conceive~1 to be made; Moses was its actual, historical mediator. With these passages about Moses we emerge from the dim mists of prehistoric times onto the stage of genuine history in the secular sense of the term. In the four brief selections from Exodus we learn the crucial facts about Moses’ career and his significance for the history of his people.

First of all there is the familiar story of the burning bush and the revelation of God which came to Moses as he tended the flocks of his father-in-law on the slopes of Mount Horeb (Exod. 3:1—17). Although some details of the story are plainly legendary, there lies back of it a profound and soul-shaking experience which convinced Moses that God had chosen him for a special mission, to be the teacher of his people and to rescue them from slavery~entra1 in this experience was the revelation of a new name for God. Before Moses’ day, the Hebrews had worshipped many gods under many different names, but now they were to learn that the older gods—of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—were merely manifestations of their one true God, who was from this time on to be worshipped under the name of Jehovah (or Yahweh), a mysterious name which later writers understood to mean "He Who Is" (vv. 14~16). Thus Moses’ first gift to his people was a new and profounder understanding of the nature of God.

The second selection from Exodus relates the story of Israel’s departure from Egypt. Some generations before, a few Hebrew families, insignificant and unorganized, had settled there during a famine in the desert, an event frequently paralleled in Egyptian history. In the course of time their status, originally honorable, deteriorated until they became mere slaves of the Egyptian crown, exploited to help with building operations in the Delta. When Moses returned from the desert with his amazing story, they rallied gratefully behind him and under his leadership escaped from their oppressors. The account of their deliverance in Exodus 14:15—31 represents the traditional form in which the tale was told at the annual commemoration of the event—the Passover. In its present shape fact is clearly intertwined with legend, but the fact is sure. Israel’s history began when she escaped from slavery in Egypt, and she knew it could not have happened except that God was with her. From the beginning, the God of Israel and the Bible is a Redeemer God who is both willing and able to save His people.

In Exodus 19:1—6 the tribes have at last arrived at Sinai (or Horeb) and there, in a solemn ceremony the nature of which we can only dimly see, Israel accepted Yahweh as her God and thus became His own possession, "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (vv. 5f). In this way Moses, inspired of God, founded the nation of Israel. But we must notice that right from the start it was not merely a nation like other nations, but a spiritual cornmunity, a Church. This is the actual beginning o the Church of God, the Church of the Old Israel, which would one day expand into the Church of the New Israel.

The basis of the covenant which now came into being was the Law of God, to which Israel promised faithful obedience.. The Ten Commandments, found in one form in Exodus 20: 1—17 (also in Deut. 5:6—21), may be taken as typifying the essential requirements of the Law. As the community grew and lived under new conditions, it is natural that the number of her laws increased and old laws were adapted to meet the needs of an altered situation. The collections of laws which now follow in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers mostly come from much later times, but all bear witness to the conviction of Israel that there is a law of right and wrong and that the first duty of God’s children is to obey it.

If we now turn to the New Testament passages, we may find ourselves in difficulty, for the selection from Romans (7:7—14) is not an easy one. But it is an important passage and not so difficult once one grasps the central thought. Paul is trying to show that both in common sense and in the providence of God man had first to be introduced to the Covenant of Law before he could understand the Covenant of Grace in Christ. Until men have been confronted with God’s demands in the Law, they cannot know that they are sinners. And until they have tried to keep the Law and failed, they cannot realize that they are helpless and in need of the grace which only Christ can give. So, says Paul, it was necessary that God should have led Moses to establish the Covenant of Law, for only in this way could men become conscious of their fallen state and their need for God’s redemptive work in Christ. This chapter is not a mere academic exercise in speculative theology, but is obviously in large measure autobiographical, and passionately so. In his own experience Paul, as a pious Pharisee, had found it impossible to live up to the Law’s majestic demands. But it was this very sense of failure which opened his heart to the Gospel, and he was sure this was exactly why the Law had been given and was "holy and righteous and good."

The little verse from John (1:17) nicely summarizes the nature of the covenants and strikes the proper affirmative note on which to end this chapter.

 

IV. THE PROMISED LAND

Joshua 6; 11:23; Micah 4:1—5; Hebrews 4:1—11; 11:13—16

By accepting the covenant of the Law at Sinai, the people of Israel had become an organized community— potentially, at least, a nation. But they were not yet a nation in the fullest sense of the word because they had no land of their own.

The selection from Joshua (6: 11:23) tells of the way in which they acquired the land of Canaan and made it the land of Israel. How important the idea of "the land" has been in their tradition is shown by the fact that in our own day hundreds of thousands of Jews have gone back to the land of their fathers and have once more given the name "Israel" to a part of it. It is difficult for us today to read the story of Joshua with much sympathy, since the invasion it describes is likely to seem bloody, barbarous and morally unjustified. One need only read Joshua 6:21 with imagination to realize how horrible the story actually is, and it makes it only the more sickening to realize that these things were supposedly done in God’s name.

There would be something wrong with our religious and moral sense if we did not feel some sense of revulsion. Nevertheless, certain facts may help to moderate our feelins. First of all, modern scholarship suggests that the conquest was probably not as thoroughgoing, and therefore not as savage, as the Book of Joshua represents it. It is likely that the capture of cities such as Jericho and the subsequent extermination of their inhabitants was a comparatively rare event. The actual "invasion" was for the most part a peaceful infiltration in which the Hebrews began by occupying unsettled parts of the country and only gradually gained dominion over their Canaanite neighbors. The story of a single war of conquest in the Book of Joshua is the product of later tradition which simplified the complexities of actual history and took pride in exalting the military prowess of the nation’s ancestors.

No doubt there were some bloody battles and barbarous massacres, but in thinking of them one must judge the Hebrews by the standards of their time, not of ours. Such events were common to the ancient world, and the Canaanites had no doubt originally established their claim to the land in just this way. Further, we should note that from the standpoint of objective history the conquest of the Canaanites by the Hebrews was the conquest of a highly civilized but morally debased people by a people who were relatively uncultured but gifted with a moral sense and a spiritual vitality higher than that of any other nation the world has known. From the standpoint of later history, including our own, it would have been a disaster if the Hebrews had failed to conquer Palestine.

The most familiar of the stories in Joshua (6), that of the battle of Jericho, has been selected for reading simply because it is typical of the stories in this book. As one can see by looking at a physical map of Palestine, Jericho had to be taken by the Hebrews if they were to control the country, since it is the gateway from Transjordan and the desert lands to the east. Undoubtedly the capture of the city was accomplished by more conventional means than the present story suggests. As it now stands, the narrative is less a precise historical record than an expression of the faith of later Israel that her victories were won by the power of God rather than by her own military skill

Verse 17 refers to a strange and (to us) horrifying practice whereby the besieged city was vowed to God as a holocaust; every article was to be destroyed, every living thing killed. While to the modern, Christian mind such a vow is inexpressibly cruel and contrary to all that is known of God, yet it was not illogical in the context of ancient "holy war" since it demonstrated that the warriors were fighting for some ideal purpose, and not for personal gain in the form of slaves and plunder.

The hero of the story—and of the book—is Joshua, but he remains a shadowy figure of whom little can be said beyond the obvious fact that he was reputed to be a great military leader. Joshua 11:23 summarizes the story of the whole book and shows the place which Joshua came to occupy in the late tradition about these earliest days in Canaan.

Since it is often supposed that the battle-ethics of the Book of Joshua are typical of the whole Old Testament, it is well at this point to turn to the idyllic picture of a later Hebrew seer who thought it was the ultimate destiny of Israel and her land to be a center from which peace and good will should flow to the nations of the earth (Mic. 4:15). A comparison of this gentle and attractive poem with the sanguinary tales of Joshua makes it evident that God’s Spirit was at work in the hearts of His people during the long centuries which intervened.

Finally we turn to the New Testament, to a passage in the epistle to the Hebrews where the author argues (in somewhat complicated fashion) that, while God always intended that His faithful people should share with Him "the rest"—the sense of completion, fulfillment and joyous achievement — which He experienced on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:2f), this intention was not, as many seemed to think, finally realized by Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. The proof, he says, is that a psalm (95; v. 11) written years later could still speak of the "rest" as future. There still "remains a sabbath rest for the people of God" (Hebrews 4:9 RSV); the Promised Land still lies before us. By such reasoning the experiences of Israel in the desert, the crossing of the Jordan, and the conquest of Canaan ceased to be mere facts of ancient national history and became instead symbols of the triumphant progress of the human spirit toward its divinely appointed destiny.

In 11:13—16 the same author pictures the ancient men of faith as all of them pilgrims whose journeys, unknown to themselves, were directed toward that true and heavenly Promised Land.

V. THE FOUNDING OF THE KINGDOM

I Samuel 11:1--11, 15; 18:5—12; 31; Acts 22:6—21

Saul is the first character who emerges from the Old Testament story with a clearly defined personality. Earlier figures are either legendary or else our information about them is fragmentary and we are unable to form any clear picture of the kind of human beings they really were. But when we come to the age of Saul and David the historical sources become so full and, for the most part, so clearly authentic, that we feel we know the leading figures as real persons like ourselves. None of them is likely to touch us more deeply than Saul, the founder of the kingdom of Israel and the most genuinely tragic figure in the Bible.

The founding of the kingdom was another of the important turning points in the developing history of the people of God. Before Saul’s time, Israel had been a loosely organized confederation of tribes bound together by the worship of a common God. But in the 11th century B.C. a crisis arose which made it necessary for them either to unite more closely or to perish. The Philistines, who had settled along the coast about the same time the Hebrews were infiltrating the highlands, had begun to push eastward and, with the advantage of more compact organization and superior weapons, were threatening the independence of the Israelite tribes. Great crises frequently produce great men and Saul was the man for this one. It was he who changed the scattered forces of Israel into an army and took the first energetic steps to drive out the invader, and he was the first to whom the people of Israel gave the title of King.

There are several stories and legends in I Samuel which have to do with the rise of the monarchy, but the one in 11:1—11, 15 is obviously the closest to the facts. It tells of an attack on the Israelite town of Jabesh-Gilead by the neighboring Ammonites, who threatened to put out the right eye of every inhabitant of the city. In vv. 4f we read how news of this came to Saul the farmer as he returned to his home in Gibeah from plowing in the field. The next verse tells of his characteristic response. A manic rage, which his countrymen ascribed to "the Spirit of God," fell upon him and he sent a grim summons to all the tribes to join him in saving Jabesh. So impressed were the people by his military skill and vigorous leadership that, after his defeat of the Ammonites, they made him king of Israel (v. 15) (vv. 12—14 are not part of the original story).

Later chapters describe the beginning of the war with the Philistines and in the course of them we are introduced to David, who was destined to be Saul’s successor. Now the dark side of Saul’s nature began to appear. The story becomes tragic in the strict sense of the term, which refers properly to the downfall of a great man for a single fatal weakness. Saul was a great man—a genius with volcanic energy—but like many geniuses he was emotionally unstable and jealousy was his fatal flaw. When the king saw his handsome and personable protégé, David, enjoying the popularity which had once belonged to him, the surging river of his energies began to turn inward instead of outward, darkening his mind and reducing him to periodic madness. We read of this in 18:5—12, although what is there attributed to "an evil spirit from God" we should today explain in terms of psychopathology.

The drama reaches its inevitable end in chap. 31 when Saul kills himself after his defeat by the Philistines at the battle of Gilboa. The full measure of the tragedy becomes evident when we realize that the Old Testament tells of only two other genuine suicides. The Hebrews were too healthy-minded a people for self-destruction to present itself as a normal possibility. Yet the story does not altogether end in darkness, for the last episode describes how the men of Jabesh, mindful of the debt they owed to Saul, went by night at peril of their lives and rescued his body from desecration. Their gratitude is final evidence of his essential greatness and goodness.

Saul has no theological significance like Abraham and Moses, and his name is rarely mentioned later. But it was Saul who founded the kingdom of Israel, and it is from the idea of the kingdom of Israel that eventually there came the idea of "the kingdom of God," one of the key concepts of the Bible. It is true that the name later associated with the perpetuation of the kingdom was that of David, and the future Messianic King is always called the Son of David, not the son of Saul, but it was Saul who laid the foundation upon which David built and it was he, a truly royal though tragic figure, who first seemed great enough to his own people to bear the name of King.

Although there is only one tiny incidental reference to Saul in the New Testament, it is well to remember that he was not entirely forgotten. More than a thousand years after his time a young man, also of the tribe of Benjamin, was named for him and, though no king himself, he also helped to build a kingdom. There is some evidence that he too was emotionally unstable—he was at least of a highly sensitive temperament—but when the Lord took possession of him on the Damascus road the vigorous stream of his energies began to move, not inward, but outward and became a source of blessing to the world. This is the story of Acts 22:6—21.

 

VI. DAVID—THE MESSIAH KING

II Samuel 1:17—27; 5:1—10; 11; 12:13—25; Jeremiah 23:5—6;
Luke 2:8—11; Mark 11:8-11

The connection between David and the idea of the Messiah is far more direct than the connection between Saul and the idea of the Kingdom of God. Saul merely happened to be the first Hebrew king, but, for later generations of Israel, David was the ideal and perfect ruler who provided thepattern for the ideal king of the future and from whose descendants the Messiah would one day come. Indeed, it is not quite accurate to distinguish between David and the Messiah, since "messiah" was actually one of his titles, as it was of every king of Israel and Judah.

The word messiah in Hebrew means merely "the anointed one" and, since all the kings were anointed at their coronation, all were entitled to the name. It was only after the earthly monarchy had fallen and men’s hopes were directed toward the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the future that the name Messiah, in a new and special sense, came to be applied to the Son of David who would reign in those latter days.

As one reads the story of David (and we are fortunate in having more information about him than about any other character of the Old Testament) it is easy to see why he laid such hold upon the popular imagination. With all his faults, which were many and serious, his people loved him. They loved him first of all because he was himself a man who loved deeply. Nothing shows this more clearly than the lament he composed when he heard that Saul and Jonathan were dead (II Sam. 1:17—27). There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his feeling in spite of the long estrangement between himself and his former master, for Jonathan was his friend and Saul was a sick man against whom he could hold no grudge. Nothing in David’s character is more attractive than this constant readiness to understand and to forgive, a quality which seems especially remarkable against the background of a rude and warlike age which regarded revenge not only as a right, but as duty (cf. for example, the behavior of Joab in II Sam. 3:27).

Such gentleness is often the mark of an artistic temperament, and one is not surprised to find that David the warrior was also a poet and musician. His lament over Saul is one of the oldest, as well as one of the finest pieces of Hebrew literature which has come down to us from antiquity. It was David’s skill as a poet, along with the obvious sincerity of his religious faith, which ultimately gave rise to the tradition that he was also the author of the book of Psalms.

But, if people loved David for his warm heart, they also loved him for his achievements. Where Saul had been a tragic failure, David was an overwhelming success. David finished the job Saul had begun—that of unifying the nation and driving out the Philistines—and did something Saul would never have dreamed of attempting, for he created an Israelite Empire which ruled the surrounding peoples. II Samuel 5:1—10 gives just a hint of the magnitude of his accomplishments when it says, "And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of Hosts, was with him." This chapter also has a special interest for it tells how he captured the ancient Canaanite city of Jerusalem and made it the capital of his kingdom. As David was to become the earthly symbol of One infinitely greater than himself, so Jerusalem was to become a symbol of the goal of every man’s desire, a fact of which we are reminded every time we sing "Jerusalem the golden" or read the shimmering description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.

The author of Chronicles, writing 700 years after David’s time, expurgated the story of David and attempted to present him as a kind of unblemished Tennysonian hero; but the older sources make no attempt to do this. They show us all of David, the light and the dark alike. He was a great man who in most respects towered far above his age, but he was also a great sinner, as the story in II Samuel 11 and 12:13—25 all too plainly tells us. It is a revolting tale, only slightly alleviated by our knowledge that it comes to us from an unrestrained and violent age, but we are grateful for the honesty of the Bible which permits us to see David in full perspective. It is obvious that his people did not love him blindly, but in spite of his sins and weaknesses.

No later king was gifted with David’s remarkable combination of brilliance and personal charm. Most of them were mediocrities or worse. So, it is not surprising that men began to dream of the return of David or of one who would be like him. Out of this hope—born of present disappointment joined to a firm faith in God’s power and His good will toward His people—came the expectation of the Messiah, the ideal King whom God would send one day. After the final destruction of the Davidic monarchy, belief in the Messiah gradually became a fixed element in the creed of many of the greatest spiritual leaders in Israel. The brief passage in Jeremiah 25:5f is just one expression of this hope.

And at last the Messiah came. The gospel story (Luke 2:8—11) tells that his birthplace was Bethlehem, the town where David himself had been born, and in Mark 11:8-11 we read of his royal entry into David’s capital. He was not like David in his weakness, but he was like him in his strength. Like him, he was a truly royal figure, reigning upon a throne, although it was a cross; he won a mighty victory on Easter Day; and he created a spiritual Empire, the universal Church.

VII. SOLOMON IN ALL HIS GLORY

I Kings 2:10—12 4:20—30; 6:37—7:1; 10:1—10;
Jeremiah 22:13—16; Acts 7:47—50; Matthew 12:42; 6:25—29

 

Solomon’s claim to "glory" is far more valid than his claim to wisdom. His reputation for wisdom is a result of the natural tendency of tradition to magnify the figures with which it deals and was made possible in this particular case because the ancient 1-lebrews had a broader conception of wisdom than our own. For example, they sometimes used the word to designate a certain superficial cleverness of hands or brain. And if mere agility of mind is wisdom, then no one doubts that Solomon was a wise man.

The word could also be used to designate roughly what we should call "culture," a concern for the arts and sciences and a capacity to dabble in them. In this sense, also, Solomon was a wise man. It was under him that Israel first became a cultured nation. Before his time the Israelites had been a rude, almost barbaric people—at least when compared with their neighbors—and the arts of war had been the chief concern of their rulers. But with Solomon’s long, peaceful reign, the culture of the surrounding world—its philosophy, poetry and architecture—began to filter in; the royal court became a center for scholars, artists and men of letters, and the king himself, enjoying the leisure made possible by the wealth of his inherited domains, acted the part of the magnificent dilettante as well as patron of all the arts.

Because Solomon had "wisdom" in this limited and rather shallow sense it was possible for later generations to attribute to him also the profounder wisdom which consists in knowing the true meaning of life and the principles which should govern human conduct. They liked to think of him as an ideal monarch, whom God had endowed with all the gifts desirable in a ruler. Nevertheless it is evidence of the healthy good sense of the Hebrews that Solomon was never taken to be the pattern of the Messiah. They might picture him as the philosopher-king who wrote profound books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (not to mention the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, written in Greek near the beginning of the Christian era!), but he was too soft and self-indulgent to be the Hero-King of the future.

As we read the story of Solomon’s reign with modern eyes, we are more impressed by his folly than by his wisdom. We can see that it was his policy of government which destroyed the empire David had created. Subject peoples had already begun to break away in Solomon’s time and at his death the kingdom of Israel broke apart, never to be united again. To uncritical eyes the reign of Solomon was bathed in glory, as we can see from the description of the luxury of his court in I Kings 4:20—30; but its glory was that of gold that glitters, not the Glory of God shining in the hearts of men.

There were no external wars, and wealth flowed into the royal coffers from trade, industry and, especially, from heavy taxes on the people. This made possible the enormous building program Solomon undertook, a program designed to exhibit in visible and permanent form the magnificence of his rule. He occupied seven years in the building of a temple for his God and—significantly—thirteen years in constructing a house for himself (I Kings 6:37—7:1). In later years the temple became a center of devotion for the whole people of Israel, the chief focus of their spiritual life, but this was scarcely Solomon’s intention. For him it was a palace chapel, comparable in modern terms to the chapel of the English kings at Windsor Castle.

Although Solomon introduced an insidious poison into the life of his people—the love of luxury and mere display—the authentic spirit of old Israel continued to live in the minds of her great religious leaders. In later times we find them frequently, and sometimes violently, opposed to the policies of kings who endeavored to follow in Solomon’s footsteps. Jehoiakim was such a king and when we read Jeremiah’s criticism of him in Jeremiah 22:13—16, we might almost imagine the words had been written about Solomon himself. The glory of the Old Testament is not the glory of Solomon, but the glory which consists in a passion for justice and righteousness and a concern for the poor and needy. As Jeremiah says (v. i6) the true knowledge of God—which is only another way of saying true wisdom—consists in being concerned for the things with which God is concerned. Neither Solomon nor Jehoiakim possessed this kind of wisdom.

The three references which the New Testament makes to the achievements of Solomon range in tone from outright condemnation to mildly unfavorable comparison. Stephen in the great speech he made at his trial criticizes Solomon for having tried to confine God in a temple: "The Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands’’ (Acts 7:47—50). In Matthew 12:42 Jesus expresses his sorrow at the failure of his generation to hear the Gospel, whereas in ancient days the Queen of Sheba traveled from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, which was of far less value. And finally, in Matthew 6: 25—29, we note our Lord’s striking use of a comparison between the glory of Solomon and the beauty of a single wild flower (vv. 28f). The true spirit of the prophets and of ancient Israel continues to speak through Jesus. He makes us see the shabbiness of Solomon’s attempts at a man-made and man-centered magnificence when compared with the glory which every man can enjoy but only God can create.

 

VIII. A HOUSE DIVIDED

I Kings 12:I—20; Ezekiel 37:15—28; John 17:20—23

The history of the kingdom of Israel is a success story in reverse. The only great days it ever knew, in the worldly sense, were the days of David and Solomon. Then, for a brief space of time, Israel was the greatest of the nations in its own little world. But after the death of Solomon Israel’s history takes the form of a descending line.

The first disaster was the break between North and South which produced two kingdoms where there had been only one before. The northern kingdom was destroyed by invading armies two centuries later and the southern kingdom lasted only another century and a quarter after that. No nation ever had brighter dreams than Israel did in the days of David, but no people ever saw its hopes for material grandeur more completely frustrated in the end.

The immediate cause of the disruption of the kingdom is evident enough from reading the story of Solomon’s reign. The glory of his kingdom was built on rotten foundations. His temple, his palace, the luxury of his court were made possible only by the exploitation of the people, and at last they rebelled. The North had always been somewhat restive under the rule of David and Solomon, who were Southerners, and even before Solomon’s death rumblings of revolt had been heard. His son Rehoboam, who had neither David’s genius for war and politics nor his father’s flair for the grandiloquent gesture, was totally incapable of dealing with the crisis in which he found himself. The result was the loss, forever, of two-thirds of his territory and an even larger proportion of his people.

The sad story is told in I Kings 12:1—20. When Rehoboam came to Shechem to be recognized as king by "all Israel" (which means here the tribes of the North as contrasted with the tribe of Judah to which the king belonged) he was confronted with a petition for the redress of grievances. The story tells how the older men advised him to meet the demands of the people and so win their gratitude and loyalty. But he preferred to listen to the young hotheads who were close to him and who recommended a policy of repression and violence. In every society, including ours, there are some who think that generosity and a spirit of compromise are signs of weakness. So Rehoboam not only refused to make any conciliatory move, but actually threatened to increase the people’s burdens.

Israel always had a strong democratic tradition which regarded kings as, at best, a necessary evil and the whole ethos of the nation was opposed to the claims of Divine Kingship made by Solomon and his imitators. Since this tradition was especially strong among the northern tribes, no serious observer could doubt how they would react to Rehoboam’s stupidity and arrogance. They raised the old battle cry of rebellion, which had been heard even in David’s days (II Sam. 20:1)—"What portion have we in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse!"—and expelled the Davidic dynasty, decisively and finally, from their territory.

Jeroboam, the hero of the revolt, was consecrated king over the tribes of the North. 1-us dynasty was soon to be exterminated in blood, as were most of the dynasties of the northern kingdom, but at least for his own lifetime he was securely enthroned as king over most of the land of Israel. It is important to keep in mind that, during the two centuries that followed, the northern kingdom (Israel) was the greatest of the two and most of the important events in the history of the period transpired there. But it is also important to remember that it was the people of the little, relatively insignificant, kingdom of Judah (the "Jews") who were to survive the catastrophes of later times and preserve for the world the incalculable treasure of God’s revelation. Here we see one of the persistent patterns of God’s working in history. He chooses the most improbable agents (judged by human standards), "the weak and the base . . . and the things that are despised" (I Cor. 1:27f), for the accomplishment of His mighty purposes.

One of the unchanging convictions of biblical religion is that God desires the unity of His people. The permanent separation of the Hebrew kingdoms was certainly not in accord with God’s will, though it may have been necessary under the circumstances of the time. We can see that it resulted from human sin rejecting the purpose of God for Israel. This first great schism in the household of faith, like every later one, was the result of arrogance and a selfish love for power. But the great spiritual leaders of Israel were confident that God had both the will and the might ultimately to overrule the wills of sinful men and would one day restore to His people "the witness of visible unity." This assurance is beautifully and pathetically expressed by the prophet Ezekiel (37:15—28) in words which gain added poignance from the realization that when they were spoken the northern kingdom had already been gone for over a century and the southern was at that moment lying in ruins.

The problem of the unity of God’s people is still with us in both the political and ecclesiastical life of our modern world. So, as we conclude our study of the disruption of the ancient community of faith, it is well to remind ourselves of the prayer for the unity of his people which the Fourth Gospel places upon the lips of Jesus (John 17:20—23).

IX. ELIJAH—THE TROUBLER OF ISRAEL

I Kings 18:16—40; 21:1—22; II Kings 2:9—12; Malachi 4:5—6; Luke 1:5—17

The prophet Elijah appears upon the stage of Israel’s history with the suddenness of a thunderclap. The final editor of the Book of Kings introduces him, without the slightest preparation, as a full-grown man pronouncing God’s judgment upon the reigning house of Northern Israel. In I Kings 15—16 the author has obviously been quoting from the accurate, but almost painfully dull official records of the kingdom. Suddenly with the opening verse of chap. 17, the mood of his narrative changes. One can see that he is no longer dependent upon the prosaic chronicles of the court but is using a popular biography of one of Israel’s great national heroes. We sense the excitement in his tone when he begins to relate the tale: "And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. . ."

With the figure of Elijah we stand at the beginning of the apostolic succession of prophets, the men who were to be the hearts and minds and consciences of the people of Israel in the centuries ahead. The prophets had two functions to perform: on the one hand they would be the "troublers of Israel" (I Kings 18:17), dedicated to awakening the spiritual and moral sensibilities of the people by pointing out their sins and the judgment which must necessarily follow. But also, especially in later times, they were the comforters of Israel, who showed the nation in times of discouragement that God’s ultimate purpose is not judgment but redemption and reconciliation. In all the dark times of later years they would be like shining lights reminding the Chosen People that their God is the Lord of History who rules the nations by the moral law and is guiding all history toward the realization of His purposes. In Elijah we see only the troubling, not the comfort. But this is natural, for neither men nor nations are prepared to receive the gospel of redemption until their consciences have been disturbed and a realization of their sinfulness has brought them to understand the need for God’s help.

The immediate stimulus to Elijah’s work was the growth of the spirit which Solomon had introduced in Israel—manifested by the increasing claims of royal power, a willingness to compromise the pure religion of the fathers by introducing the worship and debased morality of other gods, and a growing contempt for the rights of little, "unimportant" people. Ahab, the ruling head of the northern kingdom, was a living embodiment of this apostate spirit and had brought Israel’s affairs to a crisis through his marriage to Jezebel, a strong-minded Phoenician princess who was determined to make the nation conform to the pattern of other oriental kingdoms. Elijah, with that clear intuition which is always the property of a truly great man, saw that the policy of Ahab and Jezebel meant the end of Israel as a unique people and the loss of the spiritual treasure which had been committed to her. So the whole of his tremendous energy and that of his disciple Elisha after him was directed toward a war to the death with the royal family and all it stood for.

The battle was fought on two fronts, as we can see from the two long readings from Kings. The first was that of winning men’s exclusive allegiance to the God of Israel. In I Kings 18:16—40 there is a stirring narrative which epitomizes this phase of the conflict. As we read it we shall probably feel that the story has grown somewhat in the telling. It has all the excitement and relish of a folk tale and certainly includes legendary elements, as do all the stories of the Elijah and! Elisha cycle. But one also feels that it is an authentic reflection of the long and finally victorious struggle of Elijah and his followers with the forces of paganism.

The other incident, the one recorded in I Kings 21:1—22, illustrates the second aspect of Elijah’s struggle, his championing of social justice and the rights of small men. The religion of Israel had always been democratic in spirit and would always remain so in the teaching of the prophets. One of the major concerns of all Israel’s prophetic leaders was to defend the poor and those who had no one else to help them. In the present story, Naboth was entirely within his rights in refusing to cede his small plot of land to the king. The scheme of Jezebel was part of a larger plan to alter the distinctive character of Hebrew society and destroy the religious principles on which it rested. Without the opposition of Elijah, she would undoubtedly have succeeded.

When one considers Elijah’s stormy character and tempestuous career it is not surprising that later generations believed that he had not died a natural death, but had been swept up to heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:9—12). Still later it was believed (as it is even now by orthodox Jews) that he would return one day to prepare men for the coming of the Lord (Mal. 4:5—6).

Men of the New Testament quite naturally saw the promised return of the great "troubler of Israel" in the awe-inspiring figure of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5—17, cf. Matt. 11: 14). ("Elias" in KJV is the Greek form of Elijah.) Those who accepted Jesus as Messiah could hardly fail to see in John, the prophet who prepared his way.

 

X. ELISHA AND THE GREAT REVOLT

II Kings 5; 9:1—7, 30—37; Hosea 1:4; Luke 4:24—30

Life can give to a teacher no greater gift than a disciple who is able to carry on his work. Elijah, alone among the prophets of the Old Testament, had this satisfaction. Other prophets had followers who collected their sayings and kept their memories fresh, but only Elijah had a pupil whose temper and ability made it possible for him to pick up his master’s work and carry it through to completion.

The career of Elisha is the direct continuation of that of Elijah and the lives of the two men were so closely interrelated that it is impossible to think of one without the other. Even ancient Hebrew tradition had some difficulty in keeping them apart and it is clear from the Bible that stories told originally about one might easily come to be told about the other also.

Nevertheless, the two men were distinct and their personalities were quite different. Elijah was a solitary, hermitlike figure, while Elisha was a gregarious man living in close association with other prophets. Elijah was essentially a man of prayer, who lived near to God and depended upon his awesome proclamation of the Word of God to achieve his ends. Elisl1a was more the man of action and did not hesitate to use worldly and political means to arrive at results he considered morally justified. On the whole, Elijah is a remote and grandiose figure, while Elisha is more human and accessible. Yet with all their differences, the two were animated by a common purpose—a passionate resolve that the pure metal of Israel’s faith should not be contaminated by the alloy of pagan religion and pagan morality.

The story of Elisha’s call and his accession to Elijah’s dignity is told, for those who care to look it up, in I Kings 19:19—21 and II Kings 2:1—15. We shall here consider only two stories from his later career. Each shows him under a different, but typical, aspect. In the first (II Kings 5) we see him in the role of minister to men’s bodily needs, a role frequently attributed to him and one which no doubt reflects something of the natural warm humanity of his character. In this chapter the breadth of his sympathies and the power of his God are shown by the fact that the man to whom he ministers is not an Israelite, but a foreigner, the victorious general of an enemy king. Naaman is said to have been a leper (although this may refer to some milder disease than the one now called leprosy). The story of his healing has come down to us through later disciples of the prophets who told it in such a way as to illustrate two basic principles of prophetic thought: the necessity of unquestioning obedience to God’s commands, and the requirement of pure disinterestedness in those who would serve Him. Naaman objects to what seems to him the silly command to bathe in the Jordan River (vv. 10—12), but his servants point out that one who is prepared to obey in great matters should also be ready to obey in smnall (13). Convinced, and perhaps somewhat ashamed, he does what he has been told and is rewarded by perfect restoration to health (14). The second principle, the need for disinterestedness in God’s service, is illustrated by the story of Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, who tried to capitalize on his master’s act of kindness (20—24), but was rewarded for his greed and the betrayal of his trust by becoming a leper himself (25—27).

The other story (II Kings 9:1—7, 30—37) illustrates the political side of Elisha’s work and its final, somewhat horrifying, result. Although Ahab, Elijah’s enemy, now was dead, his family still ruled and the Queen-mother Jezebel was the most powerful figure in the land. We see Elisha deliberately stirring up an armed revolt against them and associating with himself the sinister figure of Jehu, a bloody-minded rogue and adventurer if there ever was one, in order to achieve the overthrow of the ruling house (vv. 1—7). The story of Jezebel’s death (30—37) is one of the most shocking and yet

dramatic tales in the Old Testament. Ahab’s dynasty was exterminated; Jehu became king, and Israel was saved from the danger of national apostasy. The program of Elijah and Elisha was, for the moment at least, fully realized.

Although we sympathize fully with the program, we can only regret the means which Elisha chose to carry it out. The pure religion of the Bible, both Old Testament and New, repudiates the resort to "the arm of flesh" to accomplish God’s purposes. God is quite able to take care of Himself, as the later prophets never wearied of telling their hearers (though sincere religious leaders of modern times have occasionally forgotten this). Just a hundred years after Elisha’s time, another prophet cursed the house of Jehu, which was still on the throne, for the blood that was shed in this revolt (Hos. 1:4).

In Luke 4:24—30 two stories telling of Elijah’s and Elisha’s ministry to foreigners are used to illustrate the principle that "no prophet is accepted in his own country." But a greater principle is involved than just this, for a prophet who is repudiated by his own people has the opportunity of taking his message to the larger world. This seemed to have been true of Elijah and Elisha and was certainly true of Jesus and his Gospel. We are meant to understand that a mission to all the world, not merely to the Jews, was implicit in our Lord’s ministry from the very beginning. The two stories of Elijah and Elisha illustrate the fact that God’s power and love are never limited by national boundaries. The world-embracing Gospel of Christ is the final expression of this basic biblical truth.

 

XI. AMOS AND HOSEA— HERALDS OF JUDGMENT

Amos 2:6—16; 5:21—27; Hosea 6:4—6; 11:1—7; II Kings 17:1—6; Luke 3:1-9 Matthew 9:10—13

The first great function of the prophets was to bring to Israel the solemn consciousness of sin. Up to this point, in spite of the disruption of the kingdom and a series of revolutions, the dominant temper of the nation had been one of optimism and even smug self-satisfaction. In the middle of the 8th century B.C. this mood seemed justified by the great prosperity which both kingdoms were temporarily enjoying. But men of spiritual insight could see that this apparent well-being was only a mask concealing a deeply rooted sickness of soul which could lead the nation nowhere but to disaster and death.

It was at this period that the "literary" prophets began to appear. These are the men who give their names to the prophetic books of the Bible, but the modern reader must remember that the books were not actually written by them but are collections of brief addresses which were originally delivered orally and only later written down, either by themselves or by their disciples. To get the full impact of the prophetic discourses one should picture them as spoken, spontaneously and vehemently, before an audience gathered in the courtyard of some sanctuary on a feast day.

All the eearly prophets really had but one basic theme: "Because of her sins, Israel is about to be destroyed." God would gladly have saved His people from reaping the harvest they had sown, because He is a God of love as well as of righteousness, but if they would not repent and change their ways there was no escape from the judgment which must inevitably come. If the prophets often seem almost brutal in their predictions of doom, it is because of their despair. They could see that the nation’s spiritual disease had reached the point where repentance and restoration were impossible.

The prophets were the first to realize how incurably sick is the heart of man. They understood that sin is not an occasional minor disorder of the human personality, but a basic disorientation of man’s whole being. Ultimately they would come to see that God in His wisdom and goodness must have a plan for the healing of His people. But this point had not yet been reached by the earliest prophets. Their mission was only to preach the reality of sin and the imminence of judgment. In doing so, they were of course helping to "prepare the way of the Lord," since the Gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ could have no meaning except for a world convinced of its spiritual sickness and its need for help.

The first two prophets, Amos and Hosea, both appeared in the northern kingdom (in the reign of Jeroboam II) just before its fall. Both spoke of the sins of the nation, but attacked the subject from different points of view. All sin has two aspects and involves two relationships: man’s relation to his fellow man and his relation to God. Amos was concerned with the first of these; Hosea with the second.

Amos was a solitary man of the desert, a laborer, no professional huckster of religion (as he boasts in the familiar words of Amos 7:14f). He had been revolted by the evidence of man’s inhumanity to man as he saw it everywhere in the cities of Israel, by the selfish luxury of the rich and the unheeded misery of the poor, by the corruption of judges who "sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes" (Amos 2:6—16). God’s primary demand, he said, is not temples and feasts and fine religious music, but that men should "let judgment (better translated "justice"—RSV) roll down as the waters and righteousness as a mighty stream" (5:21—27).

Hosea, on the other hand, was chiefly concerned with the people’s lack of loyalty to God. The prophet himself had suffered from the disloyalty of a faithless wife (as we learn from the rather obscure personal narrative in Hos. 1—3). Although the people professed to serve the God who long ago had made a covenant with Abraham and Moses, they seemed to have no knowledge of the kind of God He was. They worshipped other gods whenever it suited their purposes and acknowledged no responsibility to learn His will or return His love. All God really expected, they thought, was an occasional sacrifice or burnt offering (Hos. 6:4—6). To the prophet this was infinitely pathetic in view of the love God had always shown them and, since love cannot be rejected with impunity forever, they must prepare themselves for the blow that was about to fall (11:1—7).

Amos and Hosea had correctly diagnosed the condition of the people. The whole moral life of Israel was deeply infected by injustice toward men and disloyalty toward God. Such a nation, the prophets insisted, could not survive. And in II Kings 17: 1—6 we read the story of its end. The kingdom of Israel, to which they preached, was destroyed by the Assyrian invader and vanished forever from among the nations of the earth.

When we turn to the New Testament we find that the main emphases of prophetic teaching are renewed both by John the Baptist and by Jesus. John came, as Amos did, prophesying judgment and calling for repentance (Luke 3:1—9). He seems to have chiefly stressed just and kindly relations among men. Jesus, like Hosea, seems rather to have dwelt on the need for an inner transformation of character by means of a right relationship with God. It is, of course, Hosea whom Jesus quotes in his rebuke to the Pharisees in Matthew 9:10—13.

 

 

XII. ISAIAH—PROPHET OF FAITH

II Kings 15:1—7; Isaiah 6:1—7:16; 9:1—7; Matthew 1:18—23

 

The writers of the historical books in the Bible do not always make it easy for modern readers to follow the story. They were, of course, writing for people of their own time to whom the proper names and the general course of events were far more familiar than they are to us. For this reason it is almost essential that a Bible reader of today have at his elbow a good one-volume Bible commentary and a good Bible dictionary (see Introduction).

This need is well illustrated by the passage from II Kings (15:1—7) which gives the historical setting of Isaiah’s call to prophesy. Without some assistance from the outside the reader could hardly be expected to know that King Azariah, mentioned there, is the same person as the "Uzziah" whose name occurs in V. 13 and in the Opening verse of Isaiah 6.

The long and prosperous reign of this king in Judah was roughly contemporaneous with that of Jeroboam II in the northern kingdom. The movement of "literary" prophecy began in both kingdoms at about the same time, which was for both of them a time of great, although temporary, prosperity. Times of security and ease have even more need of the proclamation of God’s Word than times of trouble. The Anglican Prayer Book wisely bids men to pray, "in all time of our prosperity . - - Good Lord deliver us!"

The 6th chapter of Isaiah is the classic account of the call of a prophet. In his own words Isaiah tells us how the call came to him in the courtyard of the temple while he was worshipping God on some great feast day in the year of Uzziah’s death. The barrier which normally divides the seen from the unseen was suddenly removed and Isaiah seemed to be looking into the mysterious veiled inner sanctuary of the temple where the majestic Lord of Israel sat enthroned in the midst of His heavenly host. Isaiah’s first reaction was a sense of overwhelming unworthiness (v. 5). This is the inevitable result of a true and valid experience of God. Only those who do not really know God are satisfied with themselves; those who are most con-scions of their sins and inadequacies are the saints and prophets who are closest to Him. But God never leaves His children in despair, and Isaiah is illustrating the typical course of man’s spiritual life when he tells us how his sense of personal unworthiness was taken away by the gracious forgiving act of God (6f). In this experience is undoubtedly to be found the germ of the great doctrine of Faith in God which was Isaiah’s most important contribution to his people and to the world. Finally there came the call to serve God by becoming a messenger of His Word (8—13). There are several things in this part of the chapter which are difficult to understand, but this much at least is clear: Isaiah, like Amos and Hosea, was to be a prophet of doom and prepare the people for the catastrophe which their selfishness and disloyalty were bringing upon them. Furthermore, he was not to cease his preaching or become discouraged, however unresponsive they might seem to be.

But if Isaiah was like Amos and Hosea in his message of coming doom, he eventually came to speak with another voice which is scarcely found in them at all, at least in their unquestionably authentic utterances—the voice of hope and encouragement. Chap. 7 tells how this came about. More than ten years after Isaiah’s call, in the reign of Ahaz, Judah was threatened with war by two powerful neighbors, Israel and Syria, and the heart of the people shook "as the trees of the forest shake before the wind" (v. 2 RSV). In this crisis, Isaiah was inspired to become the strengthener rather than the "troubler" of Israel. "Take heed, and be quiet; fear not . . ." he said. "If ye will not believe, ye shall not be established" (4, 9).

There are some difficulties in this chapter, not least in v. 14. Obviously this is not a prophecy of the birth of Christ many centuries later, since the promised sign was one which Ahaz himself was to see. (The use made of the verse in Matt. I:22f is symbolic and poetic, rather than literal and historical.) But whatever the passage means and whoever the promised child may have been, the heart of Isaiah’s message lies in the name which was to he given him, Immanuel, which in Hebrew means ‘‘God is with us." This was the essence of Isaiah’s teaching. The people might desert God, but God would not desert them. Even if disaster came, He would somehow fulfill His purpose and redeem His promise.

One of the ultimate results of the faith which Isaiah preached was the hope for the coming of a Messianic king. There are a number of passages in his book (we are thinking here only of chaps. 1—39) which speak of the coming of such an ideal figure. Chapter 9:1—7 is just one example. Whether it is actually by Isaiah we do not know, but there can be no doubt that it is a product of the kind of faith Isaiah taught.

The final vindication of Isaiah’s faith is, of course, to be found in the New Testament, and Matthew 1:18—23 reminds us that the full force of the words "God is with us" became evident only with the coming of Jesus Christ. He was the Messiah of whom Isaiah’s pupils dreamed, but also the very God in whom Isaiah trusted. In him the name Immanuel became a statement of fact and not merely an affirmation of faith.

 

XIII. JEREMIAH AND THE NEW COVENANT

II Kings 22:1—13; 23:1—5; Jeremiah 1; 7:1—15; 31:31—34
I Corinthians 11:23—25; Hebrews 8

About a hundred years after the time of Isaiah there came to the throne of Judah a king who seemed the perfect embodiment of the prophetic ideal. Josiah was noted for his goodness, his fair dealing and his loyalty to the God of Israel. The fine qualities of Josiah’s rule were all the more striking because of the contrast they presented to the reign of Manasseh who, for over fifty years, just before Josiah’s time, had terrorized the loyal worshipers of Jehovah and forced the party of the prophets to become a kind of political underground. The story of Josiah’s reign begins in II Kings 22:1—13. It must have seemed to those who lived through his early days that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that all the dreams of the prophets were about to be realized. The temple of God which had been long neglected, was restored to its former magnificence (vv. 3—7) and in the course of the renovation a book was discovered which set forth in legal style the requirements of Israel’s God as the prophets understood them (8—13). No sooner had the book been brought to the king’s attention, than he ordered it to be publicly read and accepted formally as the law of the land (23:1—5).

But admirable as Josiah’s intentions were and fine as was the law which he imposed (commonly thought to be a part of our present Book of Deuteronomy), the Kingdom of God did not arrive. As a matter of fact, Judah was standing at this moment on the edge of disaster. Josiah’s life was to end in tragic defeat; the Babylonian Exile was drawing near; the great reform was only the bright glow before the sunset. The people of God had begun to learn the meaning of sin; they still had to learn the meaning of suffering and hopelessness.

All through these strange and discouraging times there was one man who kept his head, the prophet Jererniah, the most human and attractive of all the great figures of the prophetic tradition. He was not swept away by enthusiasm for Josiah’s well-intentioned, but superficial, reform; and he did not fall into despair when the kingdom was destroyed and Israel’s worldly hopes were shattered. He knew that true reform has to begin with time hearts of men and not with the laws under which they live. When things were darkest, he was sure that God is in control of things, and that He is at work through all the devious windings of human history to reclaim the souls and minds of men.

We read the story of his call in the first chapter of his book. It tells of a country boy, quiet and introspective by nature, whom God called to His service and sustained by His grace through forty years of loneliness and violent opposition. Jeremiah had none of the natural qualities of a hero, but because he knew that God was with him he became "a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls" (vv. 18f). The account makes it evident that the burden of his preaching, in the beginning, was to be the imminence of judgment. "Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land" (14). Jeremiah felt the inner corruption of the nation, in spite of external evidences of reformation, and he knew she would still have to pass through the fire.

The precise counts in Jeremiah’s indictment of Israel are summarized in his Temple Sermon in chap. 7:1—15, where he accuses the people of trusting in the sticks and stones of the House of God to protect them, whereas they should have put their trust in steadfast loyalty to God and in just dealing "between a man and his neighbor" (vv. 4—7). Because they had not done this, God was about to destroy Solomon’s magnificent temple, which meant so much to them (14), and bring the kingdom to an end (15).

But the message of Jeremiah was by no means entirely a message of doom. He lived to see his predictions come true and, when that happened, the nature of his preaching changed. The most remarkable of his prophecies, and perhaps the most important in the Old Testament, is the one in which he foresaw the establishment of a New Covenant (31:31—34), a covenant which would be based on an inner and personal communion with God rather than on external obedience to a written code of laws. In many ways the thought of Jeremniah rises above the limitations of his own day to find points of contact with both the remote past and time remote future—with the religion of the patriarchal age, symbolized for us by the covenant with Abraham, and with the religion of the New Testament, embodied in the New Covenant in Christ. Recent studies in the Old Testament have shown that the religion of Israel’s ancestors in the days before Moses was a much more personal thing than it became after the Israelite community was established. This is shown by the references in the Pentateuch to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 26:24; 28:13; Exod. 3:15), and by the intimacy with which their relationship to God is described. The mind of Jeremiah seems to have a deeper affinity for this kind of religion than for the more legalistic type which was associated with the name of Moses, and which had so recently, and fruitlessly, been revived by the reforms of Josiah. So he looks forward into the future and sees a time when the covenant of laws will be done away and a new order established in which God would rule directly in men’s "inward parts . . . and in their hearts" (v. 33). The very existence of a book called the New Testament (which means New Covenant—see the title page in the RSV) is evidence that the hope of Jeremiah was fulfilled. The selected passages from the New Testament underline this fact. In St. Paul’s account of the Last Supper (I Cor. 11:23—25—the earliest we have), Jesus speaks of the shedding of his blood as the means by which the New Covenant would come into being. Every communion a Christian makes is both a pledge and a renewal of this covenant. The passage from Hebrews (chap. 8) is a splendid as well as a solemn affirmation of its final validity and adequacy.

 

XIV. EZEKIEL AND THE EXILE

II Kings 25:1—12; Ezekiel 34:1—16; 37:1—14; John ,10:1—i6

At last the great disaster came. For a hundred and fifty years the prophets had been announcing the imminence of doom, but little heed was given them. There were, of course, individuals who could see that things were not right and that Israel’s self-centeredness and disloyalty to God were destroying her only reason for existence. But it takes more than the conversion of a few individuals to heal a deep-seated disease in the body of a nation.

To continue the medical analogy, we might say that surgery alone could help. The Exile was a terrific surgical operation which separated the people from their land and destroyed their existence as an ordinary nation. But like every good bit of surgery it destroyed one part of the nation’s life only to give another and more important part opportunity to function healthily. Israel ceased to be a nation like other nations in order that she might become what God had always intended her to be: a spiritual fellowship, "a nation of priests," a Church. It was during the Exile that this change began and that it happened was partly due to the healing and encouraging activity of the spiritual leader of the exiled community, the prophet Ezekiel.

Toward the end of the seventh century, the kingdom of Judah had been quietly absorbed by the rising Babylonian Empire. But no nation is ever long content to be ruled by foreigners, and twice (in 597 and 587 B.C.) the Jews rose up in armed rebellion against their new masters. On the second occasion, described in II Kings 25:1—12, the Babylonians resolved to make a third attempt impossible. They tortured and deposed the king, destroyed Jerusalem and many of the other cities of Judah, and carried away a large part of the population into Babylonia. Thus the Exile began.

Already in 597 some of the Jews had been taken to Babylon and the prophet Ezekiel was among them. It is unfortunate that Ezekiel’s true greatness is obscured for modern readers by the difficulty and monotony of his style and the harshness of his personality. It requires a real effort at sympathy to read his book. We shall not concern ourselves here with the early oracles contained in chaps. 1—24 or the oracles against foreign nations in 25—32. Most of these were delivered before the last attack on Jerusalem in 587 and merely repeat in Ezekiel’s own characteristic way the threats of doom found in the older prophets. In chap. 33 the mood of the prophet changes and the rest of the book consists of oracles of deliverance. When these prophecies were spoken, Jerusalem had already been reduced to a heap of rubble and the people of God no longer had temple, country or king. It is a remarkable and thought-provoking [act that the prophets always preached in opposition to the prevailing mood. In days of material prosperity and universal optimism they had been heralds of doom. But now that the doom had come and the popular mood was one of complete despair, they began to picture the future in glowing terms andl their message became one of evangelical hope and encouragement.

So, in chap. 34:11—16, one of the rare places where Ezekiel seems to exhibit anything in the nature of tender emotions, he speaks of the contrast between the days of the old kings who had once reigned on the thrones of Israel and Judah, exploiting the people for their personal advantage, and the new time of the future when God Himself would be the King of Israel and feed His people and heal their wounds (vv. 11-16). This chapter reflects the ancient oriental custom of speaking of kings as "shepherds." If we remember that, to men of the Bible, the word shepherd suggested the thought of a king, we shall not today be in danger of sentimentalizing the idea of the shepherd as is so often done in devotion and religious art.

The other chapter we have chosen from Ezekiel, the 37th (vv. 1—14), is more characteristic of the man’s weird and sometimes gruesome genius, and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive single bits of imaginative discourse in the Old Testament. In a vision the prophet sees the nation of Israel as a defeated and slaughtered army of long ago, the whitened bones of its soldiers covering all the surface of a plain. "Can these dry bones live?" comes the skeptical question everyone was asking. Ezekiel’s answer was that what is impossible for man is possible for God. He sees in his vision the divine breath blowing across the valley and quickening the bones to life. "The breath came in them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army" (v. 10). In the same fashion, says Ezekiel, God will one day take his broken people Israel and make of them again a great nation.

As we shall see in our next set of readings, the dream of Ezekiel was partly realized by the return of the exiles to Palestine and the rebuilding of their national life in the land of their fathers. But in a far more profound and significant sense it was fulfilled in the Christian Church, the final flowering of the tree of Israel. There, indeed, we find "an exceeding great army." And the promise of the Good Shepherd is fulfilled, as all can see, in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the point of the familiar and beautiful parable in John 10: 1—16.

 

XV. SECOND ISAIAH AND THE RETURN FROM EXILE

Isaiah 40:1—11; 52:1—10; 55; Luke 3:1—6

For nearly fifty years the people of God remained a captive and helpless nation. Ezekiel’s encouraging message of reconstruction seems to have made little impression upon them, which is not to be wondered at since the slow passing of the years brought no change in the objective political situation.

But finally the wheel of history began to turn in their favor. A great new power appeared upon time scene and it became obvious that the days of the Babylonian Empire were numbered. From the mountains to the east and north of the Babylonian plain rumors began to filter in even to the common people that Cyrus, king of the Persians, was on the march and older nations seemed unable to withstand him. People also began to hear of his generosity toward captured nations and his policy of tolerance toward the religion and customs of the subject races of his empire.

To the cynic this might seem to be merely evidence of the fickleness of fate, which whimsically raises up kings and empires oniy to destroy them. But there was at least one man in Babylon, the last of the great prophets, who saw, in the onward march of Cyrus, the hand of God at work to redeem His unhappy people and restore them to their ancient home. For him, Cyrus was the "shepherd" of the Lord, His "anointed" servant, chosen to carry out the mighty purposes of the God of Israel (Isaiah 44:28; 45: 1).

Strangely enough we know almost nothing about this prophet beyond the fact that he lived in Babylon in the days just before and after the Persian conquest. Even his name is unknown and we call him Second Isaiah merely because an accident of literary history caused his oracles (Isaiah 40—55) to be attached to a collection of the oracles of Isaiah, who lived about two hundred years before his time. (A modern novel by Sholem Asch, The Prophet, is an interesting attempt at a fictional reconstruction of his career.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Bible that this prophet, of whom we know less than almost any other, is in many ways the greatest of them all. No other speaks so directly, and with such immediate appeal, to the heart of the modern Christian. He is the great theologian of the Old Testament; but also the great singer, whose themes are the universal themes of high religion: love, joy and confidence; the Glory, Power and Mystery of God.

The opening lines of the first oracle (Isa. 40:1—11) set the tone for the whole of his prophecy: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people." One can hardly imagine a greater contrast than the one between this message and that of older prophets such as Amos. By the time of Second Isaiah, Israel had! come to know all too well the God of righteousness; she was now ready to learn that God’s righteousness and justice are only aspects of His love. It was the special mission of Second Isaiah to proclaim the redeeming love of God. As he saw the fall of Babylon drawing near and the way being opened for the return of God’s people to the land of the covenant, his poetic imagination overflowed and, without a trace of sentimentality, he began to picture the God of Israel—the only God who is—as One who would feed His flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in His arms (v. 11).

In the second of tile passages (52: 1—10) the poet summons Jerusalem, lying in ruins far away across the desert, to awake from a long and horrible nightmare to greet her God who now returns to her in love and mercy. "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings!" (v. 7). The prophet’s contemporaries, who first heard his message, must have greeted him in almost precisely these words.

The third passage (chap. 55) is one of the high water marks of Old Testament scripture. Originally it was addressed to the Jews of Babylon inviting them to accept the opportunity winch Cyrus had offered of returning to their homeland!. Curious as it may seem, many were reluctant to do so, since they had already established themselves in profitable businesses in Babylon and had no desire to face a new existence in what would, for them, be essentially a pioneer country. The prophet urges them to remember that life has rewards to offer which are far more valuable than anything which money can buy (v. 2). Security seemed to them the greatest of life’s values, but true security comes only to those who hear the voice of God and gladly obey His call (3—5). As so frequently happens, the opportunity comes only once, never to return again (6). The ways of God may seem mysterious (8), but His promises are sure (10ff). Although spoken so long ago, the words of the prophet are as meaningful for men of our own materialistic, security-conscious age as they were for the Jews of ancient Babylon.

The vision of Second Isaiah was far too great to be realized within the framework of the political history of Israel and it is not surprising that Christians have always seen in his words an anticipation of the redeeming work of Christ and the glories of his kingdom. Lessons chosen from Second Isaiah are particularly familiar to members of liturgical churches from hearing them read with this application in the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. In our last passage (Luke 3:1--6) the evangelist uses some of the prophet’s most familiar words as a magnificent overture to the opening Scene in tile story of our Lord’s public ministry.

 

 

XVI. AFTER THE RETURN— NEW TROUBLES AND NEW HOPES

Ezra 1:1—2; 2:1—2, 64—70; 5:1—2; Haggai 1; Neherniah 8:i—8;
Zechariah 9:1—10; Matthew 21:1—5

The historical records of Israel from the end of the Babylonian Exile to the beginning of the Christian Era are exceedingly meager. In contrast to the detailed and consecutive history which tells the story of the Hebrew monarchy from the time of Saul to the fall of Jerusalem, the history of post-exilic Israel comes to us only in the form of a few highlighted stories separated from each other by decades and even centuries of which we know absolutely nothing.

The whole story of this long period—over five hundred years—is contained in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (and, outside the canonical Old Testament, in I—Il Maccabees and the histories of Josephus). The first reading suggested above from Ezra (1:1—2; 2: 1—2, 64—70) tells briefly of the return of some of the Jews to Palestine in response to Cyrus’ decree and introduces us to Zerubbabel and Joshua, the leaders of the little post-exilic community in Jerusalem. Joshua was the high priest, while Zerubbabel, a member of the royal family who is listed in the New Testament as one of the ancestors of Jesus (Matt. 1:12), was civil governor in the Persian administration.

The first important achievement of the returned exiles was the rebuilding of the ruined temple. Ezra 5:1f tells very briefly how this was brought about. Fortunately we are able to supplement this inadequate account by turning to the book of Haggai (chap. 1) and to Zechariah 1—8, which contain the actual pronouncements of the two spiritual leaders chiefly responsible for getting the work started. During the first years after the return from Babylon, the people had been too busy building houses for themselves (Hag. 1:4) and trying to cope with the discouraging economic situation (v. 6) to give much thought to the building of a temple, but Haggai convinced them that their selfish disregard of God’s glory was a major source of their troubles (8—11). The prophet’s arguments are admittedly not on the highest religious plane and may seem to us a little over-simple, but at least they were effective, for the new temple was begun in 520 B.C. (12—15) and completed four years later.

The rebuilding of the temple did not result in any sudden, miraculous improvement in the material condition of the people, but it did at least provide Israel once more with a center for her spiritual life. The great love which later Jews were to feel toward Jerusalem and the house of God really grew up in connection with this second temple, architecturally insignificant though it was, rather than with the older and more imposing temple of Solomon. It was for this temple that many, perhaps most, of the Psalms were composed; and the Book of Psalms was assembled to be used as its hymnal.

Postexilic Israel never amounted to much as a nation (except during a brief period in the second and first centuries B.C. when she was ruled by the descendants of the Maccabees). Most of the time Palestine was only an unimportant province of some great world empire, inhabited by people who were economically and culturally poor and famous only for what seemed to the rest of the world certain strange ideas about religion and a fanatical devotion to their God.

One result of the narrowing and impoverishing of Jewish life was an increased devotion to the traditional written Law. Lacking a king and all the other external signs of nationhood, it was only natural that strict observance of time Law should come to seem the very essence of being a Jew. In Nehemiah 8:i—8 we find the story of a solemn public ceremony in which the Law (some part of the Pentateuch) was read to the people by Ezra, the great religious hero of postexilic Judaism, and enthusiastically accepted by them. l~Iuch as we must sympathize with the Jews in these difficult times and honor them for the tenacity which enabled them to survive at all, Christians cannot but regret the narrowing of Israel’s horizons which necessarily resulted from this concentration on mere legalistic observance, this growing emphasis upon the Covenant of Law rather than upon the more basic Covenant of Faith.

For the most part the story of the last five centuries before the Christian era is a sad and uninspiring one. It almost seems as though Israel’s creative spiritual force had exhausted itself in the exalted thoughts and magnificent language of Second Isaiah. But in spite of the general depression of these times there were many who dreamed more fervently than ever of the time when God would show His power and goodness by establishing His kingly rule on earth. Indeed the worse times became, the brighter the hope sometimes seemed to flourish, as in the latter part of Daniel, written during the most desperate crisis of the age.

Typical of these postexilic expressions of faith is the idyllic portrait of the future King of Peace found in an anonymous oracle now attached to the book of Zechariah (9:1--10). "Shout, 0 daughter of Jerusalem, behold thy king cometh unto thee . . lowly and riding upon an ass" (v. 9). It was to this hopeful and forward-looking aspect of Judaism that our Lord attached himself by his actions on the first Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:1—5).

The Old Testament ends inconclusively, on an unresolved chord; the conclusion of the story and the resolution of the chord are found in the New Testament, to which, after a brief interlude with the Apocrypha, we now must turn.

 

XVII. THE AGE OF THE MACCABEES

I Maccabees 1:1—10, 41—64; 4:28—59; II Maccabees 12:43—45;
Daniel 11:20—21, 28—32; 7:7—8, 23—25; Matthew 24:15—18;
John 10:22—23; Revelation 13:i—10

Between the Old Testament and the New in many Bibles here is a section called the Apocrypha which consists, for the most part, of books written in the intervening period. There has always been considerable discussion with regard to the canonical authority of these books, but there can be none with respect to their historical importance. They throw indispensable light upon one book of the Old Testament and upon many passages of the New. (See Introduction)

The most significant event in the nearly four hundred years which elapsed between the events narrated in the Old and New Testaments was the ferocious persecution of the Jews which broke out in Palestine under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, one of the later Greek rulers of what we now call the Middle East. In order to unify his empire and secure his southern boundaries, he decreed the abolition of the Jewish religion, which he felt made the Jews, alone amongst all his subject peoples, an absolutely intractable and unassimilable group. This was probably the first persecution ever to be directed purely at a religion. Jews who were willing to conform to Antiochus’ decree—and there were many of them—were unaffected by it, but those who refused to give up the traditional beliefs and practices of their people were subjected to torture and death. That the historic faith of Israel was not entirely lost was largely due to the heroism of Jewish guerilla fighters who, under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, finally defeated the forces of Antiochus and the kings who succeeded him.

This is the story which is told in the two Books of Maccabees (two partly parallel accounts of the same events, written from somewhat different points of view). The selections from these books, necessarily rather long, are chosen to illustrate the high points of the narrative. The first (I Macc. 1:1-10; 41—64) puts the events in the setting of general history (vv. 1—10) and tells of Antiochus’ actions to destroy the Jewish religion (41—53), culminating in the erection of a pagan altar, "the abomination of desolation," in the temple of Jerusalem (54f) and the merciless persecution of the faithful (56—64).

The next selection (I Macc. 4:28—59) describes a great victory of Judas and hiis forces some three years later (vv. 28—35) which led to the recapture of the temple, its re-consecration to the worship of the God of Israel (36—58) and the institution of a permanent feast (called "Hanukkah" in Hebrew) to celebrate the event (59).

Finally, a brief selection from II Maccabees (12:43—45) illustrates a significant addition to the religious creed of many in Israel which resulted from the sufferings of the faithful in the Maccabean age: a new and firm belief in the resurrection of the dead and in the efficacy of prayers and sacrifices on their behalf. It was this which made possible and natural Martha’s unhesitating affirmation of faith in the resurrection in John 11:24.

The Book of Daniel in the canonical Old Testament is a product of this same period, as one can readily see from a reading of 11:20f and 28—32, which evidently contain a cryptic account of the conduct of Antiochus Epiphanes (the "contemptible person" of v. 21) and his erection of "the abomination that maketh desolate" (3m).

Chapter 7 is, theologically, the most important in the book. Later, in another connection, we shall have occasion to look at vv. 9—14. Here, for the moment, we are concerned only to note that in vv. 7f there is an even more cryptic picture of Antiochus (the "little horn" in v. 8), which is, however, interpreted in more intelligible terms in 23—25. It is of incidental interest to note that it is only in Daniel of all the books of the Old Testament that the doctrine of a resurrection from the dead is plainly taught (12:1—3). (Isa. 26:19 is a minor and unimportant exception to this statement.)

The terrible events of the Maccabean Age created a new spirit in Israel: an expectation of future persecutions, a sense of glory in the possibility of martyrdom for the faith, and a sense of assurance in God’s victory over the forces of evil and His power to raise even the dead to share in His triumph. There was a tendency to see the final events of human history as following the pattern of events in the days of the Maccabees and to use the language and images of that age to describe them.

We see our Lord Himself using this now traditional language in such a passage as Matthew 24: 15—18 where he speaks of a future trial of the faithful and the erection of another "abomination of desolation" in the holy place.

In John 10:22f we see Jesus in the temple, joining with his countrymen in celebrating the feast of Dedication, "Hanukkah." The reference to winter is a reminder that Hanukkah is observed at approximately the same time as our Christmas.

Finally, in Revelation 13:1--10 we have a picture of the future tribulations of the Church ("the saints" of v. 7) in which the persecutor, one of the Roman Emperors, is described in terms which are borrowed wholesale from Daniel 7. The Book of Revelation belongs to the type of "apocalyptic" literature which first became widely current in the Maccabean Age and of which Daniel is the first great example. The influence of this type of thinking can be traced in many other parts of the New Testament and is perhaps of more basic significance than is ordinarily supposed.

 

XVIII. JESUS AND THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM

Isaiah 33:17—24; Mark 1:9—15; Luke 13:18—30; 18:15—30;
Acts 14:21—22; 19:8; Revelation 11:15

More than twelve centuries had passed since Moses heard the call of God and the people of Israel began their long spiritual pilgrimage. There had been many turnings in the road and, for many, it must have seemed to lead nowhere at all. From prosperity and power under David and Solomon they had descended to the impotence of the divided monarchies and the final disaster of the Exile. As a narrative of human achievement one could easily think of Israel’s story as a tragic farce, a bitter commentary on the futility of human effort and time fatuity of human pride.

But we do not read the Old Testament simply as human history; it is not a story of man’s failure, but of God’s success. Underneath the superficial crosscurrents of political success and failure one can feel the ground swell of God’s purpose moving tirelessly forward. He had intended Israel to be a prophetic and priestly nation dedicated to bringing the knowledge of God to all the families of the earth. The spiritual leaders of Israel, the creative minority, understood this and looked forward in eager confidence to the time when the divine intent would be fulfilled and the earth would "be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). Few as they were, these men were the real Israel and knew that the destiny of their people was not to be realized in a future kingdom of Israel, but only in the Kingdom of God.

Isaiah 33:17—24, composed by some unknown prophet of postexilic times, is just one expression of this assurance of the Kingdom which kept the heart of Israel alive during long years of spiritual depression, but it is a singularly beautiful one. Although the language in some places is obscure, it is not difficult to trace the main outlines of the prophet’s picture. In the Kingdom of God, he says, there will be no oppression, no battleships, no sickness, but only beauty, peace, and the forgiveness of sins. Many different images are used in these late passages of the Old Testament to describe the Kingdom, but all are merely various ways of making vivid the conviction that God had not failed, but would one day cause I-us will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It is this faith which unites the Old and the New Testaments. The climax of the Old Testament story is not to be found in the Old Testament itself nor in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, but in the first chapter of Mark (the earliest of the gospels to be written).

In its dramatic account of the opening scene of our Lord’s ministry (Mark 1:9—15) it picks up the thread of the Old Testament story in a verse which tells that, when John was imprisoned, "Jesus came into Galilee preaching the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘Time time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel’ (meaning, ‘good news.’)" (Mark 1:14f).

To understand our Lord’s teaching, one must grasp first of all the centrality of the idea of the Kingdom. Jesus did not come primarily to teach a new doctrine of God or new moral principles. He came to declare that the reign of God was beginning to break in upon the world and that the powers of the Kingdom were already available to those who were prepared to use them. The final establishment of the Kingdom might be centuries in the future, but its foundations were laid and the energies necessary for its completion were already at work.

In Luke 3:18—30 we find several descriptions of the Kingdom. In one (vv. 18—21) it is compared to a grain of mustard seed or a bit of leaven, both of which are so small as to be almost imperceptible at first and yet are capable of growing to prodigious dimensions. So the Kingdom as first seen in the fragile body of Jesus appears almost contemptible and yet is one day destined to cover the earth.

In vv. 24—30 Jesus pictures the universal scope of the Kingdom. It is intended not merely for the ancient people of God, but for all the world: east, west, north and south (29). Though the gate is broad enough to admit men of all nations, it is too narrow to permit the passage of the careless and the arrogant. Citizenship in the Kingdom is for those of deep and humble faith (24—28). This was a rebuke to those who rejected the teaching of their own prophets and thought that Jewish birth was sufficient to guarantee acceptance into time Kingdom. As we shall see later, membership in the Kingdom involves a certain quality of life. If men will not live the life, they cannot hope to find the Kingdom.

The same note of warning is to be heard in Luke 18:15—30. God’s Kingdom has no room for the proud and self-satisfied, for those who are wise in their own conceits or are tied down to material possessions or merely worldly values. It is open only to those who, like little children, are humble, open-hearted, unsophisticated and teachable.

These were the things that Jesus said as he began his ministry in Galilee, inaugurating not only the New Testament story, but the last and final chapter in the history of a fallen race. These things were also the burden of the first Christian missionaries, as we see from Acts 14:21f; 19:8. And despite the altered terminology of later times, the essential faith of the Church is still best expressed in such words as those of the little hymn of the Kingdom in Revelation 11:15.

 

XIX. JESUS—HIMSELF THE KING

Isaiah 11:1—5; Matthew 7:24—29; Mark 2:1—12; 8:27—29; 9:2—8;
Revelation 19:11—16

The essence of Old Testament faith in the Kingdom of God was that one day God would overcome the forces of evil and show on earth the fullness of His power. Just how this would happen and what the precise form of the Kingdom would be were matters on which there was a considerable variety of opinion. Some thought God would do it by a sheer act of His will without the help of any human agent; but the more common view was that He would send a human individual to act as His representative and rule in His behalf. Since the greatest of Israel’s kings had been David, it was natural for this future king to be thought of as one of his descendants; and since the kings of Israel were all anointed at their coronation, it was natural that he should be called the Anointed One (in Hebrew, "The Messiah"; in Greek, "The Christ"). The most appealing picture of the Christ to come is the familiar one in Isaiah ii: 1—5.

As we saw in our last set of readings, the chief burden of Jesus’ message was that the promises of God were at last being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God was at hand. In the present series, we see that he was not only the herald of the coming Kingdom, but was himself to be the King.

At the beginning Jesus did not proclaim his kingship, but only the fact of the Kingdom. He allowed his followers to discover for themselves his own peculiar relationship to it. No doubt those who first began to follow him did so because they saw him as the last and greatest of the prophets, come to declare the imminence of God’s rule; but as they came to know him better, they saw that the category of prophet was inadequate to explain him. While in many respects he was like other religious teachers of Israel in the past and present, certain qualities set him sharply apart from all of them. The most striking was the authority with which he spoke and acted.

The tone of authority was evident in both major areas of his public ministry: his teaching and his healing. In Matthew 7:24—29, one sees the impression made by his teaching. The passage is the conclusion of the "Sermon on the Mount" (actually a collection of addresses drawn from many different occasions). Later in our study we shall be concerned with the content of his teaching as it is recorded here, but at the moment we are interested only in the effect which it had on those who heard him. "The people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (v. 28f).

The prophets of old had spoken merely as God’s messengers and the scribes spoke only as the guardians and expositors of a body of teaching already given to Israel in complete and definitive form. But Jesus spoke as one who had authority in his own person. He could criticize the traditional law (as in Matt. 5:31f) and add his own commandments to it (as in 33ff) and speak of his words as the solid rock on which every human life must be built (7:24—27). It is little wonder that the people were surprised at his manner. Nor is it strange that he aroused the antagonism of the official teachers of religion, although in personal character he was the mildest and gentlest of men.

The same note of authority was as much apparent in the things he did as in the things he said—in his seeming mastery of nature and the mysterious forces which disturb the human spirit. It was said that he could command demons and make them obey and had been known to still a raging storm. No doubt some of the stories are legendary (like those of the Apocryphal Gospels) and some have been embellished by tradition, but all testify to the aura of royalty and even divinity which surrounded him. The story of the healing of a paralytic in Mark 2:1—12 is a good example of the power of his person and the effect he created.

One can easily imagine the growing change these experiences brought about in the minds of his disciples. At last the time seemed ripe for getting a mature and final judgment from them as to who he was, and at Caesarea Pimilippi, Jesus asked them bluntly what they thought (Mark 8:27—29). Perhaps they had never previously faced the question in just this way, but once it was put there was only one possible answer. Peter, acting as spokesman for the twelve breathlessly, almost incredulously, gave the reply: "Thou art the Christ!" The full force of his response becomes evident to us only as we remember that Christ means "king." Peter was not so much approving the claim of a teacher to be heard as of a monarch to be obeyed. The conviction that, in the Kingdom of God, Jesus himself is King is the foundation of New Testament faith.

A few days later, their eyes opened by their newfound faith, the disciples saw the glory of his Kingship (Mark 9:2—8). One cannot say just what happened on the mountain, for the story tells of an indescribable experience which belongs to the order of the spirit rather than to external, objective history. But one thing is certain:

Those who had known Jesus as a prophet now saw him, briefly, clothed in royal dignity as the Christ of God. In Revelation 19:11—16, a later writer, in more florid language, describes a similar vision—the same vision the Church holds before men’s eyes today.

 

XX. THE CRUCIFIED MESSIAH

Mark 8:31—33; 10:35—45;Isaiah 52:13—53:9; Mark 15:22—39; I Corinthians 1:18—24; Philippians 2:5—11

The great obstacle to our Lord’s being accepted by his own people was the fact of the crucifixion. They did not object to his claims to kingship so much as they objected to a king who either could not or would not vindicate his claims. A true king, they felt, should be like David, a ruler of nations and a winner of victories, not an impractical dreamer incapable of saving even himself. Their idea of the coming King—the Christ, the Messiah—was that of a conquering soldier, whereas from the very beginning Jesus had no other ideal than that of a humble servant of God, destined to fail, to suffer and to die.

In our last readings we heard the words of Peter acknowledging Jesus as the long-expected King of Israel. "Thou art the Christ." But as we continue the story in the first of the present selections (Mark 8:31—33) we can see how far Peter was from understanding what kind of King Jesus intended to be.

The same conflict of ideals is dramatized in the story of two of Jesus’ other disciples, James and John, who asked him for the privilege of being the leading members of his cabinet when the Kingdom finally arrived (Mark 10:35—37). He chided them gently (vv. 38—40) and then made use of the opportunity to expound his own conception of kingship. Unlike the kingdoms of the pagan world, where authority and greatness rest upon the exercise of power, God’s kingdom would be established on the principle that the highest honors go to those who give unselfishly of themselves to serve their fellows (42—44). Ammd by this same rule the King must win his crown. "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (45).

Where did this ideal come from? Was it a totally new conception, brought into the world by Jesus, or was there any foreshadowing of it in the ancient scriptures of his people? For the most part the Old Testament pictures the coming Kingdom and its King in language drawn from political life, but there is one passage which speaks of God delivering His people in quite different terms, where the word kingdom never occurs and the deliverer is not called a king, but a "servant." It was in this passage, Isaiah 53, that our Lord apparently found the pattern of his life. In Mark 10:45 he summarizes the thought of the whole chapter in a single verse.

The passage (which really begins in 52:13) is one of the poems of Second Isaiah, composed in Babylon for the congregation of the Exiles. It is generally believed by scholars that Second Isaiah was thinking of Israel itself as the Servant, or at least of the little inner core of the faithful, and of the shame and humiliation they had undergone. The prophet was sure their sufferings could not be punitive (for they had received of the Lord’s hand "double for all their sins"—40:2) and in a flash of spiritual insight he glimpsed the possibility that in some mysterious way God was making it possible for them to bear the sufferings of others. By suffering as they did they were actually serving mankind and in making the world a better place for other men to live in.

The vision of the prophet was greater than he knew. It was too great to be realized by the people of Israel and, indeed, they soon forgot that it had ever been intended to apply to them. The ideal of human life which it embodies has never been realized anywhere bumt in the person of Jesus Christ. While he did not refuse the ancient title of King, he seems to have based his understanding of the function amid dignity of kingship entirely upon the figure of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.

Wc now turn briefly to the story of the crucifixion itself (Mark 15:22—39), reminding ourselves that in reading the Bible we are concerned not with fine theories but with historical facts, not with splendid ethical ideals manufactured in academic isolation but with the actual living of human life. Jesus did not come merely to teach the noblest way to live; he lived it. He saw the painful path God meant Him to walk and followed it unswervingly to the end—although the end was Golgotha. There they crucified him and placed above his head the mocking, but unconsciously prophetic words, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King . . ." (John 19:19).

As Paul tells us, the earliest preachers of the Gospel did not find many who were receptive to the message of the Cross (I Cor.1:18—24). It was hard for either Jew or Gentile to accept for their Lord and King a man who had been executed as a common criminal. Yet the very essence of the Christian mission lay in the preaching of a crucified Messiah; and, in spite of the "stumbling block" and the "foolishness" men have not been able to escape the fascination of "that strange man upon his cross." Herod, Pilate and Tiberius Caesar died and the Roman Empire passed from history long ago, but the crucified King continues to reign on his piteous and awful throne. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians (2:5—11), pictures the final triumph and reminds his readers that a Christian is one who not only admires the cross, but follows in the steps of the Crucified. "Let this mind be in you . .

 

XXI. THE RISEN LORD

Isaiah 53:10-12; I Corinthians 15:3—8; Luke 14; Romans 6:4—11

No part of the mysterious 53rd chapter of Isaiah is more difficult to interpret than the concluding verses (10—12), but in spite of all its uncertainties the chapter plainly ends upon a note of victory. The death of the Servant was not a tragic and pointless defeat; it was the fulfillment of God’s purpose. By means of it the sins "of many" were taken away and "many" were justified. But, more than that, the death of the Servant was followed by his triumph: "he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand" (v. 10}. Whatever the ancient prophet may have meant by these words, they could have only one meaning once they were understood to refer to the death of an individual—they could only be a prophecy of his resurrection.

So when Jesus came to see in this chapter the pattern of his own life and death, he must have seen there the dawn of Easter as well as the gathering shadows of Good Friday. This would help to explain why even the first prediction of his passion (Mark 8:31) ended with a promise of his rising to life again.

The apostles, who apparently had not anticipated his death, naturally had no hope of his resurrection. What Jesus had said about these things seems to have remained a complete enigma to them. Up to the moment of his arrest, they still expected him to turn the tables on his enemies by supernatural means and gloriously ascend the throne of David, so the actual trial of Jesus and his subsequent execution meant nothing less than the extinction of their hope and the momentary end of their little world.

No event in history is more amazing than the reversal of attitude which took place in the minds of the apostles in the few days which followed the crucifixion. Their cowardice turned into courage and their despair into confidence. The change was brought about by a series of events which convinced them that Christ had left his tomb and had destroyed forever the power of sin and death. His grave was reported to be empty; women said they had met him on the road; he had appeared to many of his followers, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups; various disciples told that they had talked with him and even had him for their guest at table.

The stories could not even then all be reconciled with each other and it is impossible today to arrange those that remain in any kind of strict logical order, but all bear uniform witness to one central and inescapable fact—Jesus rose from the dead. This fact is the cornerstone of the Gospel and of the Church which proclaims it. On the basis of their experience of the resurrection, that little group of eleven discouraged men became the nucleus of a mighty army which finally conquered even Caesar’s legions and outlasted every human institution of the ancient world.

The earliest account of the resurrection appearances is the one in I Corinthians 15:3—8. Paul is here reminding the Christians at Corinth of the story of the resurrection as they had heard him tell it and as he in turn had heard it from the original eyewitnesses. According to this account the first appearance was to Peter. Later, Christ showed himself to all the apostles, and another the (hot mentioned in the Gospels) to more than five hundred people at once. Paul also mentions an otherwise unrecorded appearance to James ("the brother of the Lord") amid, interestingly enough, includes his own vision of Christ on the road to Damascus along with the other resurrection appearances.

The last chapter of Luke contains not only a version of the story of the empty tomb (24:1—12), but also the most beautiful of all the stories of the resurrection, that of the walk to Emmaus (vv. 13—32). Its particular appeal lies partly in the fact that it is a parable of the experience of the Church in later centuries. As our Lord was made known to two disciples "in the breaking of bread" (30, 35), so he continues to manifest himself to his followers in the sacramental bread of the Eucharist. The next incident (36— 49) emphasizes that the appearance of the risen Christ was not a mere hallucination, but the objective manifestation of a tangible reality (39). It also makes clear that it was only after the resurrection that the disciples came to know the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship and Learned that as his witnesses, they were to preach the good news of his victory and the beginning of God’s Kingdom to all the world (47). The chapter concludes with an account of the ascension (50—53), which was the concluding act of the resurrection drama. This was the day when the resurrection appearances ceased and the disciples knew that Jesus Christ was no longer the humble prophet or suffering servant of the Lord, but the King of Creation reigning forever in heaven as well as in the hearts of his people. As the immediate sequel to this chapter (Acts 1 :9—11) relates, their gaze was no longer to be directed sadly toward the unhappy events of the immediate past or the deprivations of the present, but hopefully toward a future day when he would return and make his royal dignity manifest in the eyes of the world.

The last selection, Romans 6:4—1l, reminds us that the resurrection is intended to be part of the life of every Christian. In baptism each one of us is made to share Christ’s resurrection experience. As he was buried in the earth and rose again, so we are buried in the waters of baptism and raised again. (The image is, of course, clearer when we think in terms of total immersion, as it was practiced in St. Paul’s day.) Christians have all received the power of the risen Christ to rise from the death of sin to a new life in him.

 

XXII. THE BIRTH OF THE NEW ISRAEL

Isaiah 10:20—22; Joel 2:28—32; Acts 2:1—42; Romans 9:6—8, 24—28; 11:1—5

Although the history of the people of Israel was so largely a story of rebellion against God’s will for them, the prophets never doubted that God would find some way to accomplish His purposes. One form which this conviction sometimes took was "the doctrine of the remnant," which taught that even though the nation as a whole might become apostate and perish, there would always be a small group of the faithful, like the 7000 in the days of Elijah who did not bow their knees to Baal (I Kings 19:18), whom God could use as the nucleus of a new and better Israel. The classical statement of this doctrine is Isaiah 10:20—22.

When Jesus the Messiah was repudiated by his own people, his twelve apostles became the whole of this faithful remnant. The next chapter in the Bible story tells of the renewal of Israel’s life which began with the apostles on the day of Pentecost. The number twelve is itself significant, for it is the number of the tribes of Israel and suggests immediately that the apostles were already Israel in miniature—the fresh sprout of an old tree, from which a new and more imposing plant would grow. As we have already learned, the new Israel was to be based upon a new and more spiritual covenant and would be open to all the nations of the world. By his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ had burst not only the bonds of death, but also the shackles of Law and national pride.

The prophets had told of many signs which would accompany the beginning of the Kingdom of God. All the descriptions are poetical and some merely fanciful, but amongst the pictures they drew one of the most remarkable is that of the outpouring of the Spirit of God upon great numbers of people, so that the gift of prophecy (i.e., of eloquent speech in the name of God) would no longer be the possession of a small professional class, but of many simple and untrained persons: ". - . your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions." (Joel 2:28—32)

This oracle provides the principal text for Peter’s speech in Acts 2 (note verse 16). A short the after the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, the apostles assembled in a room in Jerusalem, presumably to celebrate the Je\s’ish feast of Pentecost. While they were there, perhaps engaged in prayer and singing and in discussing the marvelous events which had recently transpired, there came over the whole group a tremendous sense of the presence of the Holy

Spirit of God." It was a sudden dramatic experience which could be compared only to "a rushing mighty wind" and to "cloven tongues like as of fire" sitting upon them (vv. 2f).

Immediately they went out and began to speak to the crowds which had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival from all over the world and spoke with such fervor and conviction that 3000 persons are said to have joined the Church that day (41). So the Christian, the universal, the Catholic Church began—the new Israel which was intended to bring God’s saving power to "Parthians and Medes and Elamites" and all the peoples of the world (9—11). The Holy Spirit was to be the Church’s permanent possession; baptism was to be the means of entrance into it (38); fidelity to apostolic teaching and continuity in apostolic life the chief marks of its character; and Holy Communion the principal act of its common worship (42).

Readers naturally ask, "Did the apostles actually speak foreign languages at Pentecost?" It would be presumptuous simply to answer "No," as though such things are impossible, but it is true that elsewhere in the New Testament there is evidence that "speaking with tongues" ordinarily meant highly emotional, even unintelligible, discourse rather than speaking a foreign language (those who are interested might read Paul’s discussion of the subject in I Cor. 14 1—33). The phenomena described in Acts 2:4—11 are best understood this way and the statement that "every man heard . . . in his own tongue" as the author’s attempt to picture in a dramatic way the future proclamation of the Gospel in all the languages of the world. The story of Babel in Genesis 11:1—9 is a parable of the way in which sin had destroyed the unity of the human race; Acts 2:11 is a parable of the restoration of that unity through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The fragmentary readings suggested from Romans 9—11 (9:6—8, 24—28; 11:15) are intended to show how Paul pictured the relationship of the Old and the New Israel. This whole section of Romans is devoted to the theme and it is worth reading for those who have the time and a commentary to help them understand it. The fragments are enough however, to show that Paul saw in the Christian Church the true heir and successor of Israel. Christians are "the children of promise" (9:8); they now are God’s "people" and His "beloved" (9:25); they are "the remnant" of which the prophet spoke (9:27; 11:5).

Lest we should be tempted to feel smugly superior as we read these words, it might be well to read the rest of chapter 11 too and see how Paul warns his Christian readers against spiritual arrogance, especially toward the Jews. God still loves His ancient people, and the followers of Christ must also regard them with affection as their own spiritual brethren. All men are sinners and subject to judgment, the Christian no less than the Jew. Although the Jewish people seem temporarily estranged from Christ, they have their part to play in God’s plan and Paul feels sure He will one day bring them into His fold (vv. 25—32).

  1. THE CHURCH AT JERUSALEM

Deuteronomy 24:17—22; Acts 4:32—37; 5:12—42; 6:8—15; 7:55—60;
I Corinthians 16:1—4

God’s demand for a spirit of brotherhood was a cardinal element of Old Testament faith. Ideally, Israel was intended to be so organized that the poor could always count on the help of their wealthier brethren. This ideal was, of course, never attained in actual practice, and throughout most of its history the nation’s life was characterized by callous disregard for the rights of the weak and helpless. The prophets never ceased to denounce this as rebellion against the Divine Law and declared that when God passed final judgment upon His people, the greed of their ruling classes and the spirit of selfishness which pervaded the community would be a major count against them. We have already seen a good example of this kind of prophetic preaching in Ezekiel 34: 1—16. The present passage, from Deuteronomy (24:17—22), shows in a different way how seriously the religious leaders of the old Israel attempted to incorporate essential principles of social justice into the basic law of the nation.

It is not surprising that when the disciples of Jesus organized the first community of the new Israel, in Jerusalem, they tried to make it conform to the law of brotherhood by putting all property into a common fund and having the church assume responsibility for the fundamental needs of all its members (Acts 4:32—37). Since later churches were not organized in this way, it is obvious that the experiment did not work out in practice, but the example of the Jerusalem church remains as an incentive to Christians of today to seek the same end in more practical ways, and as a continual rebuke to members of the church who feel no sense of responsibility for human beings less fortunate than themselves.

The Church, as the continuing organ of Christ’s work on earth (the "body" of Christ) felt the obligation of continuing his activities of healing and preaching. Our second passage from Acts (5:12—42) illustrates this phase of the Church’s work and the success which seems generally to have attended it. We see how the fame of the apostles’ healing power spread (vv. 12—16) and how there grew up even a superstitious veneration for the wonder-working gifts of Peter, the head of the Jerusalem church (15). The spread of the Gospel was not due so much to the disciples’ oratorical skill and their capacity for fine-spun argument as to the unmistakable evidence that the power of God to heal and to bless was at work amongst them. But they preached as well as healed, and the present passage gives a good summary of the kind of preaching in which they engaged (30—32). One notices that it was not moralistic or "intellectual" (although in the this kind of preaching also would find its proper place). The apostolic preaching was a simple, straightforward proclamation of the fact that the power of God—the Holy Spirit—had become available to all men through the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. In other passages where more extensive examples of preaching are given (as in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost), we see that the apostles laid considerable emphasis upon the fact that God’s work in Christ had been accomplished in fulfillment of the promises given in ancient times to the people of Israel.

We observe, then, that among the marks of the earliest Church were: a spirit of brotherliness, a consciousness of God’s present and available power, and a deep conviction that both true brotherhood and spiritual power have their source in the kingly rule of Christ. But there is one other mark of the Church that must also be noticed—that of a willingness to suffer for the name of Christ. In the story of the Jerusalem church we can see foreshadowings of the coming of the age of the martyrs. In the passage we have just been looking at we read of the arrest, imprisonment and trial of the apostles (17—41). Although they were released on this occasion through the counsel of Gamaliel, a wise leader of the Pharisees and (according to Acts 22:3) the teacher of St. Paul, Acts goes on to tell of other imprisonments and of the execution of at least one of the original twelve (12:1—3). The honor of being the first martyr, however, goes not to one of the apostles, but to a humbler Jerusalem Christian, Stephen (Acts 6:8—15; 7:55—60), a member of a group within the Church called the Hellenists (KJV "Grecians"), probably meaning "Greek speaking Jews" (see Acts 6:1—3). Because of their Greek background these men were more willing than the original apostles to see that the Christian Gospel involved a radical break with Judaism (6:14). Consequently they aroused far more violent antagonism in the Jewish community (7:54). Stephen, one of the leaders of this group, became the prototype of all the later company of martyrs who gave their lives for the Faith. Like them he died with a vision of the reigning Christ in his heart (7:55) and words of forgiveness on his lips (v. 6o).

For various reasons the Jerusalem community did not long continue to hold a dominating position in the Christian world. As we shall see, the center of the Church’s life shifted from Judea to the lands and cities of the Gentiles. But the lesson of brotherhood was not forgotten and it is pleasant to read that when the Christians ("the Saints") at Jerusalem fell upon evil days, special arrangements were made in the Gentile churches to raise funds for the support of the now weakened and impoverished mother church (I Cor. 16: 1—4).

 

 

XXIV. ST. PAUL—THE MISSIONARY

Isaiah 49:1—6; Acts 9:1—22; 13:1—3, 13—16, 38—48;
II Corinthians 11:24—33; Acts 28:16—31

The ancient Covenant of Faith included the promise "in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). Throughout much of her history the old Israel had tended to forget this larger purpose of her calling and to act as if God had no real concern for other nations. But the greater vision never died among the prophets. From generation to generation they continued to affirm—usually to unreceptive ears—that God did not exist for Israel’s glory, but Israel for God’s. The time must yet come when the knowledge of God would cover the whole earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11 :9).

The most striking and fully-developed expression of this view is to be found in the writings of Second Isaiah, especially in the passages which speak of Israel as "the servant of the Lord." In Isaiah 49:1—6 the prophet warns his contemporaries in exile that the restoration of Israel alone is not a sufficient task for God’s Servant. He must also become "a light to the Gentiles" and bring God’s salvation "unto the end of the earth."

The original apostles and the church at Jerusalem, of which they were the heart, do not seem—at least at the beginning—to have made much effort to realize this larger vision of the prophets, which was also of course the vision of Jesus. Whatever the reason may have been, the Jerusalem church apparently was content to develop its own spiritual life and to recruit new members chiefly from its Jewish fellow citizens. It seems to have been only with the coming of Stephen and the Hellenists that the Church began consciously to extend her energies toward actively evangelizing the Gentile world.

The Hellenists were responsible, at least indirectly, for the most crucial event of the period, the conversion of St. Paul (Acts 9:1—22). Since we are explicitly told that Paul was in the crowd which stoned Stephen (7:58), we can hardly doubt that his conversion was due in part to impressions formed on that occasion. Although Paul had been one of the fiercest opponents of the new faith, he must have been touched by the remarkable combination of heroic devotion and a gentle spirit which Stephen showed. One can imagine the question "Why?" continually obtruding itself upon his consciousness, followed at last by another, "Could Stephen possibly have been right?" Some such psychological preparation seems necessary to explain the conversion which occurred so dramatically on the Damascus road and which brought all Paul’s exuberant vitality into subjection to the rule of Christ.

When Paul was converted, he was converted all the way. He does not seem to have undergone the painful process of gradual readjustment to new ideas which the original apostles had found so difficult—or, if he did, there is no record of it, even in the long, hidden years before he began his active ministry. Perhaps because he was born in Tarsus, a pagan city, he knew the spiritual hunger of the Gentile world and was aware that their fields were white to the harvest. So, when he found the Jews antagonistic to his preaching, he turned without hesitation to the Gentiles and found there an immediate and enthusiastic response. The story of his experiences at Pisidian Antioch, as related in Acts 13:1—3, 13—16, 38—48 is typical of this phase of his career.

The rest of the book of Acts is taken up with the account of his missionary activities among the Gentiles, activities which carried him through most of the important cities of the Roman Empire, founding churches wherever he went. His own summary of the hardships of those days, in II Corinthians 11:24—33, is the best witness to the magnitude of his achievement and the price he was willing to pay. Few men in history have had more active or adventurous careers and certainly few have had more revolutionary effect upon the life of later times. Led by the Holy Spirit, Paul was chiefly responsible for the transformation of what might have seemed to many only a new Jewish sect into an overwhelmingly Gentile, and therefore universal, Church. Through him, more than any other human agent, light came to the Geniles and blessing to all the families of earth.

All this was not accomplished without some struggle within the Church itself. Certain passages in Acts reveal that many in the apostolic Church thought that the Gentiles could not become Christians without undergoing circumcision and observing meticulously all requirements of the Jewish law. But Paul, who was as rigorous toward others as toward himself, fought this battle through and vindicated his Gentile mission as successfully on the theoretical front as he prosecuted it on the practical (the course of the controversy can be traced in Galatians 2 and Acts 15). By the end of his career the Church was Catholic in mentality as well as in actual fact.

The book of Acts ends (28: 16—31) with St. Paul in prison at Rome. Nothing is known for certain about the outcome of his trial, or whether indeed it ever took place. So far as the Bible is concerned there was no reason to carry the story beyond this point. From the standpoint of history, a knowledge of Paul’s ultimate personal fate is of little importance. What is important is the fact that his great battle for the universality of the Gospel had been won and the work of preaching to the nations would be carried on in his spirit by an innumerable host after him.

XXV. ST. PAUL—THE PASTOR

Ezekiel 33:1—Il; Galatians 5; I Corinthians 8; Philippians 1:1—2I.

St. Paul was first of all a missionary, concerned with establishing new churches wherever he could. But he was also a pastor—or, as he would have been called later, a bishop—watching carefully and affectionately over the welfare of the churches he had founded. The chief evidence of his activity in this direction is to be found in his numerous epistles, or letters, which have been preserved in the New Testament. Other New Testament epistles show that many great figures of the apostolic age were also, like Paul, engaged in active supervision of young churches.

Before looking at a few typical pastoral passages from Paul’s letters, it will be of interest to turn to a remarkable chapter of the Old Testament in which, for the first the, the office and duties of a pastor are described (Ezek. 33:1—11). Before the time of Ezekiel, the prophets had thought of themselves chiefly as the mouthpieces of God, with the obligation of declaring His will whenever He chose to make it known. They do not seem to have had any great sense of continuing responsibility for the spiritual life of the community; their functioning was only sporadic and occasional. But Ezekiel felt that God had called him to a position of spiritual oversight of the people. He was to be a "watchman," constantly concerned for the welfare of his nation and of the individuals who composed it. While he could not be blamed if any member of the flock disregarded his advice, he would be held to account if he failed to give warning where warning was needed. If Ezekiel was not in actual fact the first pastor in the history of the Church, he was at least the first clearly to articulate a definition of the pastoral office.

Paul’s relation to the churches he had founded was conceived along these lines. A passage from Galatians is a good example of the warnings he sometimes felt impelled to give. We have seen already that Paul had to fight for his conception of Christianity as a new way of life completely free from any observance of the Jewish ceremonial law. Galatians was written, during the height of this controversy, to a church in Asia Minor which he had founded, but which seems temporarily to have been won over by his adversaries. The Galatian church was insisting upon Gentiles being circumcised before they were admitted to church membership. Paul, it has been said, was "red-hot mad" when he wrote this letter. "0 foolish Galatians," he says, "who hath bewitched you ...?" (3:1). In the present chapter (5) he presents the positive aspects of his argument. Freedom is the great sign of the Christian life (v. 1); faith and love, not circumcision, are its basic requirements (6); our obligations under the covenant of law are completely satisfied when we love our neighbors as ourselves (14); finally, a Christian is simply one who allows himself to be ruled entirely by the Holy Spirit (16—25). Where the Spirit is, there is no further need of the written Law (22f).

Another aspect of his pastoral ministry is illustrated by I Corinthians 8. Here Paul is not issuing warnings, but answering questions. The Corinthian Christians, only recently converted from paganism, were worried about meat, bought in the public market but previously offered as a sacrifice in the temple of an idol. Ought they to eat it or not? Paul’s answer shows his immense common sense. He tells them first of all that no Christian need be concerned about this problem as a matter of principle since an idol cannot possibly affect the food one way or another (4—6). But as a matter of expediency and good judgment, he says, one needs to remember that some ignorant persons may think that a man who eats meat once offered to an idol is really approving the worship of idols. They might thus, by their misunderstanding, be led into idolatry. So, if one suspects that this might be the case, he had better not eat such food at all (9—13).

Finally, in the passage from Philippians (1:1—21), we see Paul simply as the affectionate friend of his people, anxious for their continued growth in Christian love and understanding. This letter was written while he was in prison at Rome and was addressed to a church (the first he had founded in Europe) which he seems always to have regarded with special kindliness. The letter is a kind of thank-you note for their thoughtful remembrance of him in his troubles and for a generous gift they had sent him. He begins by telling them how much he loves them (vv. 3—8) and how he constantly prays for their spiritual advancement (9—11). Then he goes on to assure them about himself (12—21). Even his imprisonment, he says, has turned out for the best, since some have learned of the Gospel who would otherwise have had no opportunity (13); other Christians have been encouraged by his example to bear more convincing witness to the faith (14); and his own assurance that God in all things is working for good is stronger than ever.

In the pastoral ministry of Paul we see the pattern of Church life which would continue down through the centuries to come. From apostolic times to our own the Church and her ministry have provided the natural framework within which the devout life is nurtured and men grow in understanding and in love for God and other men.

XXVI. THE END OF THE STORY

Isaiah 25:1—9; 60:1—3, 14—20; Matthew 25:31—46;
I Corinthians 15:20—24; Revelation 21:1—4, 22—27; 22:1—5.

In a sense we have already reached the end of the Bible story, for once the Church had been established the means of salvation had been brought within the reach of every man. God’s great purpose of giving His blessing to "all the families of earth" had been, at least potentially, accomplished. The long history of man which follows the close of the New Testament period introduces no new factors into the situation; it tells us merely of the widening scope of the Church’s life, her diffusion among many peoples and her deepening understanding of the Gospel with which she was entrusted.

But, in another sense, we cannot leave the Bible story at this point because the Bible itself does not do so. Neither to biblical man nor to common sense does it seem likely that the story of man’s life upon earth will continue forever. Sometime, somehow, the curtain will fall upon the gorgeous pageant of human history; somewhere time must have a stop. But what will the end be? Some scientists have thought of it in terms of the cooling of the earth and the extinction of human life by the advancing icecaps. Others have thought of a final cosmic conflagration or an atomic explosion which would send the world up in flames.

To men of the Bible, however, the nature of the end was clearly determined by the presuppositions of their faith. Whatever might prove true from a purely scientific point of view about the fate of the physical universe, they had no doubt that on the spiritual level the end of history meant the final triumph of the Kingdom of God. Beyond the limits of secular history, with its ugly scars of sin and pride, they saw far off the coming rule of God. It was this vision which sustained them through the troubles of life in the present order of the world.

The readings suggested for this study are just a sample of great Bible passages which deal with the theme. One must not be disturbed by differences in the pictures they present, for they are trying to describe the indescribable. All are attempts to put into vividly conceptual, quasi-historical language truths which belong essentially to the spiritual and supra-historical order.

The first (Isa. 25: 1—9) is a brief passage from an apocalyptic work written very late in the Old Testament period (not by the prophet Isaiah). It pictures the final event as involving the destruction of human pride (vv. 2f), the rescue of the poor and distressed of earth (~), a feast which God will spread for the people of all nations (6), and the end of suffering and death (8).

The second passage (Isa. 6o:1—3; 14—20) is from the oracles of Second (or Third) Isaiah and therefore somewhat earlier than the one we have just been examining. Originally it referred to the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile, but the language is so extravagantly magnificent that it cannot be limited to any merely historical event. The author saw in the restoration of his people after the Exile a sign of God’s coming restoration of mankind. Here, once again, we find the intermingled themes of the humiliation of human pride (v. 14), God’s care for the afflicted (15), and the end of suffering (18). But the prophet also includes another theme—the glorious Presence of God in the midst of His people (19f).

In the third passage (Matt. 25:31—46) we find our Lord also dealing with the end of history, instructing his disciples as to the way in which they must enter "the kingdom . . . prepared from the foundation of the world." The scene is that of the final judgment (a frequent theme of the Old Testament also), with Jesus himself returned in regal dignity to act as Judge. Those who will be counted worthy to share in the glory of the Kingdom are the ones who willingly gave themselves to serve their fellow men. Since the abolition of human suffering is one of the goals of the Kingdom, those who would enter it must themselves have striven for this end; as he had said on another occasion, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt. 5:7). The words of Jesus in this passage contain quite as much of warning as of comfort and, however we interpret them in detail, must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

The few verses from Paul (I Cor. 15:20—24) are included to show that he shared the common faith and especially now, in the coming triumph of God’s Kingdom, he saw history coming full cycle, with Christ repairing the damage Adam once had done. So our last readings in the Bible story bring us back to the first.

The final passage (Rev. 21:1—4, 22—27; 22:1—5) is the most brilliant and rhapsodic of all pictures of the coming Kingdom. It is full of reminiscences of older prophecies, as one can see by comparing 21:4 with Isaiah 25:8, or 21:23 with Isaiah 60:19f (or 21:1 with Isa. 65:17). In 22:1—2 the writer of Revelation, like Paul, takes his readers back to the beginning of the Bible story and re-uses the images he finds there. Once again we find ourselves in the Garden of Eden, with its river (Gen. 2:10; cf. Ezek. 47:1 and Zech. 14:8) and the tree of life (Gen. 2:9; Ezek. 47:12). Poetically speaking, history began in the garden and there it will end. Once, by sin, man cut himself off from the garden and the tree (Gen. 3:24), but in the end God will bring him back to his proper home and he will find the tree of life freely offered for his use (Rev. 22:2). The leaves on the tree will be for healing the disorders of the scattered peoples of the earth, and God’s servants will reign as kings (v. 5).

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