INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
PSALM 19 No greater evidence of the glory of God exists, says this psalmist, than the majestic order of creation and the orderliness of God’s law. It is also possible that we have here two psalms woven together in vv. 1-6 and 7-14. The first part shows some similarity to an Egyptian poem honouring a sun god. The latter part expresses purely Hebrew religious ideas.
ISAIAH 50:4-9a (Alternate) This brief selection from the third of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah 40-55 declares a firm of confidence in God in the face of great suffering. It may be difficult for us to understand how one person can suffer vicariously on behalf of many. Here the Servant represents the whole nation of Israel, a sole individual representing his community. The early church regarded this as a prophecy about the Messiah fulfilled by Jesus on the cross and subsequently based a significant theology of the cross on it.
PSALM 116:1-9. (Alternate) This song of thanksgiving praises God for an apparent recovery from critical illness. It may have been sung by an individual worshiper making a thank-offering in the presence of a congregation gathered in the temple court.
WISDOM OF SOLOMON 7:25 – 8:1. (Alternate) Although attributed to King Solomon this book was actually written by a Hellenized Jew in the 1st century BCE. Not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was part of the Greek translation of the Old Testament which St. Jerome used as the basic text for his Latin Bible in the 5th century CE. The passage is part of a poem praising Wisdom as a beneficial spirit, “the breath of the power of God,” (vs. 25) and the greatest companion a human being may have because she is constantly “ordering all things for good.”
JAMES 3:1-12. This little sermonette stands alone unconnected to what goes before or what follows. But it undoubtedly bears a direct relation to the unstated background out of which it arose. Were some of the teachers in the Christian community letting their tongues lash their listeners? James addresses that problem in vv. 1-2. The rest of the passage consists of a series of four metaphors for a careless tongue and how it may be controlled to everyone’s benefit.
MARK 8:27-38. Jesus revealed his messiahship to his disciples on foreign territory. Caesarea Philippi, at one of three sources of the Jordan River, was a vacation spa built by Philip, son of Herod the Great. Also somewhat foreign to Jewish religious thought was the idea of a crucified Messiah. Jesus rebuked Peter when he tried to dissuade Jesus from such a course.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
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While Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes form the main canonical wisdom literature, Hebrew literature contained many such documents not in our Bibles. Wisdom is the fruit of cultural tradition rooted in family, tribe and local community as old as the culture itself. Further, it would be a mistake to suggest that a “wisdom movement” existed as a self-conscious group seeking to bring about social change in the whole nation. On the other hand, several redactors had to have made a conscious collection of this traditional wisdom and shaped it into the present document.
Scott identifies four key words in 1:6 which tells much about the whole book: proverb (mashal), figure of speech or parable (melisah), words of the wise, and their riddles (hidoth). The personification of Wisdom in this reading falls into the second category. The rare word melisah occurs in only two other OT passages, Habakkuak. 2:6; Isaiah14:4, and in the apocryphal book Sirach 47:17. Its meaning may be taken as a criticism or warning speech. Scott adds that the term could well be applied to the several discourses of chapters 1-7 as well as the personifications of Chs. 8, 9 and 31:1-9.
Without any tradition of philosophical discourse similar to Greek culture, the Hebrew mind turned to story. Rather than describe it as an abstract attribute of Yahweh, the Hebrews personified divine Wisdom as a woman who speaks to humans as a kindly counselor. On the one hand, she is a quality of life to be attained through training and the gift of Yahweh. On the other, she appears as a virtual goddess or emanation from Yahweh offering herself to anyone who will hear her. She tells of the discipline she has to offer to the willing listener and the calamity which will befall the one who refuses to heed her counsel.
The personification of wisdom as a woman can be seen as a distinct departure from Hebrew literary form. In some respects, she takes her place in the canon with Spirit and Logos as an intermediary between God and human beings. In Paul, of course, she is identified with Christ (1 Cor. 1:24, 30). In this reading in 1:20-21, she makes her presence known in the midst of the hustle and bustle of daily life. Like a matriarchal grandmother, she has some sharp words to say to the observant and dire warnings to those who will not heed what she says.
The phrase “the fear of the Lord” occurs in v. 29 and frequently throughout the whole book. Reverence for God and God’s will may be a preferred modern way of saying the same thing. In later OT thought the phrase was equivalent to the law of the priest and the word of the prophet. However we may wish to soften its impact, fear in the sense of a mysterious motivating moral force cannot be discounted. As Samuel Therrien put it in his article in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (2.259), true love for God “creates a sense of anguish at the very thought of evil, revolt, rebellion or compromise. (Ps. 51:6-15).” In other words, disregarding the counsel of wisdom brings inevitable judgment. Even the messianic figure of Isaiah 11:2 receives the fear of the Lord.
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No greater evidence of the glory of God exists, says this psalmist, than the majestic order of creation and the orderliness of God’s law. It is also possible that we have here two psalms woven together in vv. 1-6 and 7-14. The first part shows some similarity to an Egyptian poem honouring a sun god. The Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaton (aka Amenhotep IV, d. ca. 1334 BCE) introduced belief in such a superior sun god above all other gods during his 17 year reign. The latter part expresses traditional Hebrew ideas. It is possible that the psalmist knew of or had access the Egyptian poem and adapted it to his own purpose to show that moral law no less than the celestial system reveals the majestic order of the divinely created universe. It is not beyond reason that the psalmist also knew of the doctrine of the harmony of the spheres advocated by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE.
The cosmology of the poem represents the observations of all ancient people which remain obvious still to the uninformed. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Those ancients who studied the stars had not yet understood that the earth that revolves on its axis, turning the planet away from the sun thus creating the illusion of the sun rising and setting. This perception still has romantic and poetic value in the literature and folk wisdom of many cultures. The images of the sun as a bridegroom or a runner fit well into the literary category (vs. 5). By contrast, references to the law in the latter part of the psalm appear much more mundane and moralistic. The only metaphorical images about the law express a desire like that which the sight gold inspired and a taste like that of honey (vs. 10).
The Hebrew vocabulary of the poem is distinctively postexilic. The multiple synonyms for the law – testimony, precepts, commandments, ordinances – together with the phrase “the fear of the Lord” reflect the wisdom tradition. A moral earnestness commands the attention as the devout Israelite seeks to live a blameless life in much the same way that personified Wisdom urged upon her audience.
Vs. 14 frequently has been used as an introductory prayer before a sermon. Others feel that it is a perfunctory search for personal praise rather than a summons to devout listening for the word of God in the words of the preacher. Perhaps more than anything else, it defines the attitude of the preacher as well as the listeners to the message that is being proclaimed and heard in the name of God on the basis of canonical scripture texts.
This psalm could well be sung rather than read as scripture, for above all else, it is a hymn or anthem. Hymns based on this psalm include a Scottish paraphrase in common metre from the Psalter of 1650, Isaac Watts’ early 18th century version, “The Heavens declare thy glory, Lord”,sung to a tune from Handel’s Samson or the 19th century tune, Walton. The popular 20th century hymn “How great thou art” also recites the some theme. Several well known choral anthems celebrate the majesty of this remarkable poem too.
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(Alternate) Being Jews primarily and having only the Hebrew Scriptures to read, it was inevitable that the earliest Christians would search for references with messianic implications. The many visions of a savior figure and other oracles of the book of Isaiah immediately met this need. Especially appropriate were the four Servant Songs in the poetry of the unknown prophet of the Babylonian Exile scholars have named Second Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12). These four songs tell the story of an individual who heals and redeems through vicarious suffering. This brief selection from the third of the four songs declares the Servant’s firm confidence in Yahweh in the face of great abuse by his adversaries.
The exact length of the poem is a matter for scholarly debate. It is likely that it extends for the whole 11 verses as a poem of four strophes in a series of questions and answers (vss.1-2; 8; 9; 10). This segment contains the two middle strophes dealing with the suffering and vindication of the Servant.
It may be difficult for us to understand how one person can suffer vicariously on behalf of many. It may be more helpful to regard him as the representative of the whole nation. Here the Servant is described as a teacher who listens to Yahweh every morning. Then as one who is himself a learner (vs. 4), he receives the strength to bear the insults and injuries heaped upon him. This suffering equips him with the moral authority to challenge his adversaries and ultimately to be found innocent.
The poem conveys the image of a devout Israelite who spends much time in reflective contemplation and prayer. Unlike other prophets, however, his communication with Yahweh results not so much in divinely inspired oracles as in personal fellowship bringing an inner conviction that Yahweh will not only protect him but defend and vindicate his cause.
The setting for this contemplative experience is found in vss. 1-2a where Yahweh accuses the whole nation of impenitence in two sharply stated metaphors followed by series of questions about divorce and a person sold into slavery to pay a debt. In Jewish law a woman had no right to separate from her husband. She could be divorced only if her husband gave her a writ to that effect. A husband could even sell her as a slave to pay off a debt. No more had Israel the right to separate itself from its covenant relationship with Yahweh. A stern rebuke follows in vss. 2b-3 where violent upheavals in nature demonstrate the power of Yahweh to punish in judgment.
In some interpretations the Servant represents the whole nation of Israel. In so doing he fulfills the role of a representative of the whole nation in a way similar to a modern head of state. Here the emphasis appears to be upon the individual prophet. On the other hand, there is the concept of a corporate personality where the Servant represents the faithful covenant people suffering the hostility of an unbelieving world and thus vindicates the purposes of Yahweh to redeem that world.
More than half a century after the Holocaust, the creation of the nation state of Israel, and several wars between Arabs and Jews, is it still possible to view the suffering of Israel in the same light? Historic explosions of anti-Semitism and other violent forms of racism, often initiated by the Christian church, do seem to point to our need to learn more about God’s ways of achieving God’s redemptive purpose. Can the suffering of millions caused by climate change, famine and natural disasters also be seen from this same redemptive viewpoint? Does such really motivate changes in our behaviour as global citizens?
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(Alternate) This song of thanksgiving praises God for an apparent recovery from critical illness that brought the psalmist near death. It may have been intended to be sung by an individual worshiper making a thank-offering in the presence of a congregation gathered in the temple court. Across the centuries, its sense of devotion has provided many human hearts with solace in great crises and given voice to their thanksgiving when their trials are over.
The first four verses set the scene vividly. Now recovered from a critical illness, the psalmist voices the most sincere praise for God’s mercy. In so doing he makes a vow to be as responsive to God as God has been to him (v. 2). The threat of death and being abandoned in Sheol (v. 3) had been the cause of intense anxiety; but he prayed fervently for help and his prayer was heard (vv. 5-6). A vividly expressed sense of relief and commitment to the ways of Yahweh as long as he lives are found in vv. 7-9 .
While not part of this reading, the poet’s gratitude for saving health finds memorable expression in vss. 12-18. A lovely Scottish Psalter rendition of this segment sung to the tune Tallis’ Ordinal, “I’ll of salvation take the cup, on God’s name will I call.” (#676 in The United Church Hymnary, UCPH 1930) has been used as a eucharistic hymn in traditional celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a portion of the psalm was included in the traditional service entitled “Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth commonly called The Churching of Women.”
WISDOM OF SOLOMON 7:22 – 8:1
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(Alternate) The Jerusalem Bible: Reader’s Edition (Doubleday, 1968) has an excellent translation of this book from the Roman Catholic tradition. Although attributed to King Solomon this book was actually written by a Hellenized Jew in the 1st century BCE. Not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was part of the Greek translation of the Old Testament which St. Jerome used as the basic text for his Latin Bible (Vulgate) in the 5th century CE.
The selected passage is part of a poem praising Wisdom as a beneficent spirit, “the breath of the power of God,” (vs. 25) and the greatest companion a human being may have because she is constantly “ordering all things for good.” Vv. 22-23 consist of a long serious of adjectives describing the absolute perfection of Wisdom personalized as a woman. This concept represents significant prelude to the NT view of the Holy Spirit.
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This little sermonette stands alone unconnected to what goes before and to some extent to what follows. But it undoubtedly bears some direct relation to the unstated background out of which it arose. Were some of the teachers in the Christian community letting their tongues lash their listeners or each other in a somewhat similar way to the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote so severely (1 Cor. 1:10-17)? James addressed the problem in vv. 1-2. He returned to the theme of conflict within the community in 4:1.
The rest of the passage consists of a series of lively metaphors for a careless tongue and how it may be controlled to everyone’s benefit. The metaphors are quite obvious and still familiar to modern readers: a bit in a horse’s mouth, a ship’s rudder, a forest fire, the taming of wild animals and birds, a spring of water, olive trees and grapevines. There can be no doubt about what James meant in castigating those to whom he spoke directly or indirectly. His purpose was to create disciples who lived what they professed to believe.
Some commentators have said that the passage exhibits a dependence on the Hebrew wisdom tradition or that of John the Baptist. Indeed, it could be said that the letter is a Christian contribution to that tradition. Others have seen in it the influence of Hellenistic rhetoricians. Still others have proposed that the hand of a Christian editor is evident in vv. 1-2a which carries through the whole chapter. According to this view, the passage represents a stage in the development of Christian teaching prior to its final definition in the official apostolic form.
The first verse admonishes teachers to live by ethical standards to which others are exempt. The second admonishes the morally arrogant who will not admit their mistakes. This juxtaposition could lead to a sermon on whether or not all who teach (or preach or all professionals) should be regarded as ethical models for others to follow. This is a lively matter today with sports figures having displaced teachers, religious and political leaders as the popular heroes cast in this role. The truth is that none of these present or traditional heroes can be considered morally perfect. The fundamental issue surely is whether there can ever be a different moral standard for all persons representing themselves as Christian. Or would it not be more creative to say that everyone has a contribution to make to the ethical validity of any society?
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Jesus revealed his messiahship to his disciples on foreign territory. Caesarea Philippi, at one of three sources of the Jordan River, was a vacation spa built by Philip the Tetrarch, son of Herod the Great, and dedicated to Tiberius Caesar and himself. It was situated on a beautiful terrace about 1150 feet above sea level on the southwest slope of Mount Hermon overlooking the Jordan valley. From this site the Sea of Galilee can be seen in the distance nearly 700 feet below sea level. In Jesus’ time oppressive summer heat drove any Galilean who could afford it to such retreats as this royal spa. It must have been of considerable significance to the apostolic tradition, to Mark and to his audience that this should be the place where Jesus revealed his full identity to the disciples. One does not have to wonder why.
The fundamental apostolic creed proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord,” not Caesar or his puppet king, Philip, the remaining inheritor of the Herod dynasty. This was the fundamental issue for the Christians in Rome in the years following Nero’s burning of the city, his persecution of the Christians as the perpetrator of the crime, and the triumphal return of Titus from the sacking of Jerusalem bearing the golden candelabra and other booty from the ruin Second Temple.
The villages of the neighbourhood had a much older religious heritage. At the source of the Jordan near the village still known by its ancient name, Banias (Panias), one can see the remnants of a shrine dedicated to Pan and the Nymphs, the Greek deities favoured by shepherds. It is probable that early Semitic tribes also worshipped at this same site. OT passages in Joshua 11:17, Judges 3:3 and I Chronicles 5:23 may refer to this same location as Baal-gad or Baal-Hermon where the Canaanite fertility god Baal had been worshiped.
Also somewhat foreign to Jewish religious thought was the idea of a crucified Messiah central to this passage The popular Jewish image of the Messiah was that of a conquering warrior monarch who would drive away Israel’s oppressors and free them forever. That image still has a political expression in certain ultra-fundamentalist sects of Israeli Judaism. On the other hand, Jewish religious tradition did include a certain amount of suffering and rejection on the part of its religious leaders. One finds this in several references to Moses and the prophets (Exod. 16:2; 17:2-4; Jer. 11:18-19; 20:7-10; Matt, 23:37).
The concept of suffering or self-sacrifice as having a saving effect was also present in the Jewish tradition (Exod. 32:32; Isa. 53:5, 10, 12). This approach received explicit expression in Christian messianism not only in the gospels, but in the epistles (Rom. 5:6-8; Gal. 3:13; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 2:24-25).
Jesus rebuked Peter when he tried to dissuade him from such a course. For Jesus, this was yet another temptation in the guise of a close friend’s counsel. It tested his commitment to the mission he had chosen as a result of his earlier temptations. To counter this opposition, Jesus turned to the wider audience of the crowd gathered with his disciples. (Were they still in Caesarea Philippi or was this Mark’s imaginative presentation of the issue?) This had the effect of ending the so-called “messianic secret.”
The late Dr. Robert McClure, the first lay Moderator of The United Church of Canada, was a missionary surgeon whose professional career stretched across the globe from pre-1948 China and a Communist prison to a leprosy hospital in post-independence India, the Gaza Strip and the Indonesian jungle. His favourite summary of his faith in action was “adventure with a purpose.” He had little patience with those who refused a similar commitment for the safety and comfort of a successful career at home. He exemplified what Mark quoted Jesus as saying about losing one’s life to save it. The challenge as Mark presented it and McClure lived it parallels John’s more theological statement of what judgment really is and when it takes place (John 3:17-21).