Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 3)

Psalm 37, continued

(The previous two studies cover verses 1-11 and 12-22).

Verses 23-29

Verses 23-24

m “From YHWH [hw`hy+m@] (the foot)steps of the strong (one are secure),
He makes him firm (who) delights (in) His path,
(so) that he shall shall (no)t fall nor be hurled down,
for YHWH supports (him with) His hand.”

The theme of this section is established in the initial pair of couplets, continuing the 3+3 meter that dominates the Psalm. After the focus in the previous section on the hostility and evil plans of the wicked, directed against the righteous, here the emphasis shifts to the help and support offered by YHWH in the face of such danger. There is some difficulty of interpretation in these lines, due to the ambiguity of the persons (and associated pronoun suffixes): does “he/his/him” refer to YHWH or to the righteous person? There are also several minor textual difficulties in the second and third lines, which cannot be resolved completely.

The basic image in the first couplet (v. 23) is that of a person walking—a common enough idiom in Old Testament religious and Wisdom tradition, where it refers to a person’s behavior and way of life. Here the noun is du*x=m!, literally a “place of stepping”, i.e., where one’s foot steps. This signifies the action and conduct of the righteous person in his/her regular daily life. The noun in the second line is Er#D#, again indicating a place where a person frequently walks or steps—specifically, a trodden path. The suffix o (i.e., “his path”) could refer to the path that the righteous person takes, but also to the path as set out by YHWH (“His path”). Such a dual meaning is common with this idiom, but I would emphasize here the latter aspect—viz., as a reference to the way of God.

Indeed, YHWH gives help to the righteous in both aspects of this daily walk. He guides the person’s footsteps; there is no verb specified in the first line, but God’s action is indicated by the preposition /m! (“from YHWH…”), implying that He is the source of guidance for the righteous. He also makes this path firm and secure, establishing the righteous person’s footing as he/she walks. The verb wnnwk should perhaps be vocalized as onn+oK (“he makes him firm”). Thanks to YHWH’s support, the righteous person, one who “delights” (vb Jp^j* I) in the way of God, has strength to walk firmly upon the path, and so is characterized as a “strong (one)” (rb#G#).

The apparent reading of the first line of the second couplet (v. 24) is problematic. If YHWH makes the righteous secure, walking with firm footing, how could such a person fall (vb lp^n`)? The typical way this is rendered is, “if he falls, he will not be hurled down”, but this seems incongruous with the idea that the feet of the righteous will not slip at all (v. 31). Dahood (p. 231) suggests that lp^n` here should be understood in the sense of “fall upon” (an enemy), drawing upon the military imagery that occurs so frequently in the Psalms.

I am inclined to retain the ordinary meaning of lp^n`, and to consider the possibility that the negative particle al) here does double duty, effectively governing both verbs in the line: “he shall not fall nor be hurled down”. This rendering seem to fit best the overall sense of vv. 23-24, with the emphasis on the complete support provided by YHWH. The support is described through the anthropomorphic image of “His hand” —i.e., God’s hand that is upon the righteous, preserving and protecting them.

Verses 25-26

n “Young [ru^n~] have I been and am (now) also old,
and (yet) I have not seen the just (person) left (wanting),
and his seed searching (for) bread (to eat)—
(no,) all the day (long) he is showing favor and giving,
and his seed (is destined) for blessing.”

The help and support provided by YHWH is defined here in terms of physical and material need. This plays upon the characterization of the righteous as poor (/oyb=a#, v. 14), seemingly incongruous with the idea of blessing that is being emphasized in these lines. The point is that, though the righteous may be poor, in the sense that they do not possess the wealth of wicked (cf. the prior study on vv. 1-11), God will always supply their needs. The Psalmist regards this as a promise well established and documented through observation, during his own long life experience (“I have been young and now am old…”).

Not only are the basic needs met—i.e., food (“bread”) for himself and his children (“his seed”)—but there is enough so that the righteous (qyd!x^, the “just” person) is able to give help to others in turn. “All the day (long)” he is “showing favor” and joining (vb hw`l*) his material possessions to those of others. The latter verb is often used in the technical sense of lending and borrowing; in v. 21 it referred to the wicked borrowing (but not paying back), while here it is used in the Hiphil causative stem, in the sense of “cause to borrow”, i.e., make it possible for someone to borrow. The tendency to give of one’s resources in this way is characteristic of the righteous, even as it is typical of the wicked to borrow without paying back.

Verses 27-28a

s “Turn aside [rWs] from evil and do (what is) good,
and dwell (secure) into the distant (future);
for YHWH is (One) loving [i.e. who loves] justice,
and He does not leave His loyal (one)s (in need).”

The imperative in the first line is exhortational, urging God’s people to live in an upright manner; though not specified, this entails faithful observance of the Torah regulations, which serve as the terms of the covenant between YHWH and His people. Again, the idea of walking on the path set out by YHWH (cf. on vv. 23-24 above) is in view. In the second line, the imperative follows upon the very behavior that is urged the first line. Translating into English syntax, we might render this as “you must turn aside…and (so) you shall dwell…”. The imperatival sense could also be captured colloquially as “go ahead and dwell secure (since surely that is what you want), by turning aside from evil…”.

This choice between evil and good, characterizing the dualistic Wisdom-contrast between the wicked and the righteous, is encapsulated here by the term “justice” (fP*v=m!). It also refers to the establishment of justice, which takes place through the exercise of right “judgment”. YHWH is said to be one who loves justice—with the participle bh@a) (“loving”) effectively treated as a Divine attribute and characteristic. The righteous share this love for justice, and reflect the character of YHWH by always choosing that which is good.

This upright way of life and devotion to the covenant of YHWH (through observance of the Torah) is the basis for the support and protection that God provides. Only those who are loyal to the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) will receive this support. As I have noted on a number of occasions, the adjective dys!j*, though fundamentally denoting goodness or kindness, is often used in the context of loyalty and devotion (to the covenant).

Verses 28b-29

[u] “<(The) perverse (one)s [<yl!W`u^] will be destroyed> into the distant (future),
and (the) seed of (the) wicked will be cut off;
(while the) just (one)s will possess the earth,
and will dwell (secure) upon it until (the end).”

There is some indication of textual corruption here in the first couplet (v. 28b). To begin with, an acrostic entry for the letter u is missing from the Psalm, suggesting that a word may have dropped out. Such an omission would seem to be confirmed by the irregular rhythm of the text as we have it (2+3 meter in v. 28b). Further, it seems probable that the LXX (aA) preserves such a missing word through the presence of the plural substantive a&nomoi (“lawless [one]s”).

Kraus (p. 403) suggests restoring the corresponding plural <yl!W`u^ (“perverse [one]s”) to the text at this point, and there is much to recommend his proposal. It would restore the acrostic pattern (providing an u-section), and would also fit the LXX translation quite well. Moreover, it is easy to see how this word might have dropped out, by haplography, occurring as it does before the similar <l*oul=. An added advantage for the proposed restoration is that it introduces a fine bit of wordplay to the couplet (between <yl!W`u^ and <l*ou), of a sort that our poet could well have employed.

Restoring <yl!W`u^ would seem to require that the subsequent verb also be emended, slightly, from Wrm*v=n] (“they are guarded”) to Wdm*v=n] (“they are destroyed”)—an emendation that is reasonably plausible, since it involves the alteration of a single (similarly shaped) letter.

If one were to retain the Masoretic text as it stands (with no emendation), the couplet would read as follows:

“they [i.e. the righteous] are guarded into the distant (future),
but (the) seed of (the) wicked (one)s will be cut off”

Clearly, in this instance, v. 28b would have to be included together with the two couplets of vv. 27-28a (cf. above), and vv. 27-28 treated as a three-couplet (six line) unit. Verse 29 then would stand as a single concluding bicolon.

However, I believe a stronger argument is to be made for the division I have followed, requiring as it does the proposed emendation of the text. Thematically, the orientation of the two couplets in vv. 28b-29 as presented above is clear and consistent: the fate of the wicked (28b) contrasted with the fate of the righteous (29). There is an interlocking parallelism, whereby the “perverse ones” are destroyed “into the distant (future)” [line 1] while the righteous are preserved, dwelling secure “until (the end of the Age)” [line 4]. The contrastive parallel of the inner lines (2 & 3) mirrors the closing couplet of the previous section (v. 22): the righteous come to “possess the earth” while the wicked are “cut off” (same verb, tr^K*). Each of the three sections we have examined concludes with a similar promise, to the effect  that the righteous will inherit the earth (cp. Matt 5:5).

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

 

Justification by Faith: James 2:14-26

Justification by Faith (James 2:14-26)

As we have seen in the prior studies, the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith” was derived largely from Paul’s line of argument in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. As it happens, there is one passage in the New Testament that could be said to contradict the doctrine: it is the short treatise on “faith and works” in James 2:14-26.

It has been a longstanding matter of dispute among New Testament scholars and theologians as to whether, or to what extent, the letter of James is opposed to Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith”. Certainly, the declaration in 2:24 would seem to contradict the Pauline teaching:

“(So) you (have) seen a man is made right/just out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust [i.e. by faith] alone.”

But how far was the author of the letter aware of Paul’s writings and teachings, and is the Pauline doctrine the focus of his message here? There are three possibilities:

    1. The author is not responding to Paul at all, and the apparent points of contact are coincidental
    2. The author is responding to Paul, and opposes the Pauline teaching; in which case, there are two further possibilities: (a) he opposes, but misunderstands, the Pauline teaching, or (b) he opposes and understands the substance of it.
    3. The author is responding to Paul, but is primarily concerned with believers who misrepresent Paul’s teaching, or who reference it (as a slogan) without properly understanding it.

The first option seems most unlikely. Even if James was written as early as some commentators suggest (mid/late-40s), he (the author), and other Jewish Christians, would probably have been aware of Paul’s teaching regarding the Law (Torah), in relation to the missionary work taking place among the Gentile populations in the Roman Empire. The conflict regarding ‘works of the Law’ had already come to a point some years prior to the writing of Galatians and Ephesians (cf. Gal. 2; Acts 15). Moreover, while it is possible for other Christians to use the specific illustration of Abraham (and the citation of Gen 15:6), its importance for Paul and his own teaching on ‘faith and works’ (cf. the earlier study) increases the likelihood that the author of James is responding to the Pauline teaching as well.

When we turn to the treatise in 2:14-26, we see that is comprised of two parallel parts—two arguments (vv. 14-17, 20-26), separated by a rhetorical response by a representative opponent or (fictional) interlocutor (vv. 18-19). The two arguments share a common structure:

    • Rhetorical question that states the theme (vv. 14, 20)
    • Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)
    • Closing declaration regarding “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument, it is a practical illustration from life experience, while the second argument uses an illustration from Scripture. The latter is an expanded into a two-part illustration, with the example of Abraham (vv. 21-23) followed by the additional example of Rahab (v. 25); in between, there is a further declaration on “faith and works” (v. 24) that relates specifically to Abraham. It is just here that the author appears to be most directly at odds with Paul, as noted above. I will be discussing the matter further at the end of the article (and in the next study).

Since the three components of each argument are similar, it is worth discussing the two arguments together at each point.

1. The Rhetorical Question (vv. 14, 20)

The first argument begins with the question:

“What (is) the benefit, my brothers, if some(one) considers (himself) to hold trust [i.e. have faith], but (yet) does not hold works? Th(at) trust is not able to save him(, is it)?”

Through this rhetorical question, the author raises the possibility that a person might claim to trust in Jesus, and yet have no “works” (e&rga) to demonstrate the reality of this trust. In such a case, the author asks whether such ‘trust’ will actually save a person (from the Judgment); it is posed in negative, and the author assumes an answer in the negative: no, clearly, it cannot.

The crux of the relation between James and Paul on this matter of “faith and works” depends, in large measure, on how each author understands and uses the terms pi/sti$ (“trust,” i.e., “faith”) and e&rga (“works”). By all accounts, there is little or no difference in how the term pi/sti$ is used. It refers primarily to Christian faith—to trust in God (generally), and trust in Jesus Christ (specifically). The author raises the possibility that a person might consider/claim to have this trust, but that (in reality) it is not a true, saving faith.

When it comes to the term e&rga (“works”), on the other hand, we do find a fundamental difference in how the word is used, between Paul and James. The noun e&rgon denotes an action—i.e., something that is done, a work/task that is performed, etc. It can also connote something being made active (i.e., made to work). In Paul’s letters, and especially in Galatians and Romans, “works” (e&rga) functions as a shorthand for the expression “works of the law” (e&rga no/mou), by which is meant performance/fulfillment of the regulations and requirements in the Old Testament Torah.

For a detailed discussion on Paul’s view of Torah, in terms of the new religious identity of believers in Christ, cf. the relevant articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (Paul’s View of the Law). The expression “works of the Law” was not coined by Paul, but is traditional, as can be seen by the corresponding Hebrew terminology in a now-famous text from Qumran (the so-called “Halakhic Letter” [4QMMT]). That James has a rather different point of reference for the term “works” (e&rga) will be discussed below.

The rhetorical question in the second argument (v. 20) is as follows:

“And do you wish to know, O empty(-headed) man, that the trust (that is) apart (from) works is (itself) without work?”

There is a play on words in the Greek here that is typically obscured in English translation: trust that is “apart from works [e&rga]” is, quite literally, “without work” (a)rgh/). The adjective a)rgo/$ is derived from the root of the noun e&rgon (“work”) with the privative prefix a)– (i.e., “without”). In other words, the faith that has no “works” to back it up is ineffective and useless—it simply doesn’t work. This is another way of stating the claim in v. 14, that such ‘trust’ is not the kind of genuine faith that will save a person from the Judgment.

The idea of separation of trust from works is indicated the adverb xwri/$ (“with space [between], apart”), used in the grammatical sense of a preposition (followed by a genitive). Interestingly, Paul uses the same word to make essentially the opposite point regarding the relationship between faith and “works” (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6).

2. The Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)

In the first argument, the illustration used by the author (vv. 15-16) is a practical one, taken from life experience. It involves the situation where a fellow believer is in need. The use of the terms “brother” and “sister” makes clear that this refers to other believers, and not to needy persons in general. How does one respond to this situation? In the illustration, the person only gives lip service to the fellow believer’s need, without offering any real assistance—and the author askes “what [is] the benefit [of that]?”. Of course, this example matches the situation of the Christian who claims to have faith, but fails to demonstrate that faith in action. For the author, the point is self-evident, and leads to the conclusion in verse 17 (cf. below).

In the second argument (vv. 21-23), the illustration is taken from Scripture, focusing on the person of Abraham, much as Paul does in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 (cf. the earlier study). However, the author of the letter here makes rather the opposite point, using the example of Abraham to demonstrate that he was “justified” by his works, rather than by his faith alone. The author’s use of the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), also used by Paul, to make this contrary point, would seem to be strong evidence indeed that he is responding to Paul’s teaching on the subject of “faith and works”.

The line of argument here has three components:

    • V. 21: Reference to the traditional narrative of Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22:9-18)
    • V. 22: The application to the subject of “faith and works”
    • V. 23: The Scripture citation (of Gen 15:6)

It was the act of offering his son Isaac that truly demonstrated Abraham’s trust in God. The author summarizes this within his argument as follows:

“…was not our father Abraham made/declared right [i.e. justified] out of [i.e. by] works (in his hav)ing brought up his son Yiƒµaq (and putting him) upon the (place of) slaughter [i.e. the altar]?”

The action, in this instance, is marked by the verb a)nafe/rw (“bring/carry up”). This most extreme of actions, indicating a willingness to put his son to death as a sacrificial offering, demonstrates the depth and extent of Abraham’s trust in God. The author uses this to show the relationship between trust (faith) and “works” for the believer:

“…the trust worked (together) with his works, and the trust was made complete out of [i.e. by] the works” (v. 22)

We have here another bit of wordplay, with the verb sunerge/w (“work [together] with”), a compound verb related to the noun e&rgon. The example of Abraham illustrates the opposite situation of the person “without works”. In that instance, the person’s trust was “without work” (a)rgo/$), proven to be ineffective and useless. By contrast, in the case of Abraham, the trust is effective since it “works together” with works. Moreover, the trust is made complete (vb teleio/w) by works. This implies that a person may begin with genuine faith, but, without the realization and manifestation of it through “works”, it will never become complete, never develop into true and saving faith.

The verb sunerge/w (synergéœ) is the basis for the theological term synergism, which relates to the idea that God and human beings “work together” in the process of conversion and salvation. Protestant theologians have tended to be opposed to theories that are framed in synergestic terms, and are often reluctant to emphasize the role of human “work” in the saving process. However, it is possible to characterize the line of thought in James 2:14-26 as “synergistic”, particularly in the way that the author applies the Abraham illustration, referring to faith being made complete by our actions, a dynamic for believers that ultimate results in saving faith.

It is in this light that we must consider the author’s use of Genesis 15:6 (v. 23), which clearly is applied (and interpreted) in a very different way than Paul has used it in Galatians and Romans (on this, cf. again the earlier study in this series). It was through Abraham’s demonstration of his trust that he was considered to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes. For the author of this treatise, pi/sti$ (“trust”) is demonstrated by action; Abraham trusted (vb pisteu/w) God, and acted on that trust.

Following this example of Abraham, a second Scriptural illustration is offered—the example of Rahab (Josh 2:1-22; 6:23), who offered shelter to the Israelite spies in Jericho during their time of need. While seemingly a rather minor illustration, it confirms the significant point that the author is decidedly not using the term e&rga in the Pauline sense (as a shorthand for “works of the law“). Rather, as is clear here, and in the earlier practical illustration of vv. 15-16 (cf. above), e&rga refers to acts of kindness and mercy that are shown to God’s people (believers) when they are in need. Admittedly, the Abraham example has something of a different emphasis, but the overall context is one of “good works”, defined as acts of love demonstrated by the care shown to fellow believers. This “love command” was alluded to in the prior section (vv. 1-13, cf. my recent note on verse 8), and was very much part of the wider tradition among early Christians. The Johannine First Letter has an even stronger emphasis than does James on the importance of showing love to other believers, with trust and love being related as a binding command that Christians are obligated to follow (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). The person who does not demonstrate their trust by such love cannot be regarded as a true believer.

As noted above, the declaration in James 2:24 seems especially to contradict the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith”. Before proceeding to further discussion on this point, let us consider the final component the author’s overall argument.

3. Concluding declaration on “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument (v. 17), this is:

“So also th(is) trust, if it should not (also) hold works, is dead by itself.”

The corresponding conclusion of the second argument (and the treatise as a whole) is:

“For just as the body apart from (the) spirit is dead, so also the trust apart from works is dead.” (v. 26)

In both instances, the declaration is made in the starkest of terms: faith apart from works is dead. This goes a step further than the idea that the faith no longer works, or is useless (cf. on verse 20, above)—it is actually dead! The lack of works is compared with the absence of an animating spirit or breath (pneu=ma) in a living body. It is a natural image to use, given the importance the author here places on action (i.e., animating movement) as a sign of a true and living faith.

In order to gain a proper understanding of how James 2:14-26 relates to the Pauline (and Reformation) doctrine of “justification by faith”, we must supplement the study above with a detailed examination of three areas:

    • The short rhetorical dialogue (vv. 18-19) that comes between the two arguments of the treatise
    • The specific declaration on “faith and works” in verse 24, with it seemingly direct contradiction of the Pauline doctrine, and
    • A consideration of Ephesians 2:8-9, as a broad statement of the Pauline doctrine, which is more relevant to James (and to the Protestant teaching) than Paul’s specific line of argument in Galatians and Romans.

This will be the basis of our next study, which will bring to a close our examination of Scriptural basis for the Reformation principle of “Justification by Faith”.

Supplemental Note on James 2:8 (“The Royal Law”)

The previous note examined the expression “the Law of freedom” in James 1:25; 2:12; today I will be looking at a second key expression involving the Law— “the royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) in James 2:8.

2. “The royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$)—James 2:8

In the recent article (on the Law in the letter of James), I outlined the basic context of this passage (2:1-13); it may be divided into two parts—(a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). The expression under examination here comes from the opening statement of the second section:

“If indeed you complete (the) royal Law according to the Writing— ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ —you do well…”

Verses 8-9 together form a me/n…de/ construction (here me/ntoide/), i.e., “on the one hand… but on the other hand…”:

    • if, indeed (on the one hand [me/ntoi]), you fulfill the royal Law…you do well
    • but if (on the other hand [de/]) you take/receive the face [i.e. show partiality], (then) you work sin

Showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and powerful is declared to be a violation of the “royal Law”, and those who so transgress are “(themselves) being condemned under the Law [u(po\ no/mon] as (one)s stepping alongside [i.e. over the bounds of the Law and the right path]”. How should we understand the Law (no/mo$) here? In discussing the use of the word in James 1:25 (cf. the previous note), I argued that it carries a comprehensive meaning involving: (a) the Gospel message, (b) the teachings of Jesus, and (c) authoritative Christian instruction as a whole. Here in 2:8ff, however, specific commands seem to be intended—in particular, Lev 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”). Of course, this command, along with Deut 6:4-5, makes up the twin “greatest commandment” in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:28-34 par), and came to represent for early Christians a virtual epitome of the Law and of essential ethical instruction for believers (cf. Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10). Elsewhere in early tradition, the “love command” is nearly synonymous with the command(s) of God and Christ (Gal 6:2; John 13:34-35; 14:15ff; 15:9-17; 1 John 3:10ff; 4:7-20; 5:2-3; also 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Cor 13; 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; 1 Tim 1:5; Jude 21).

What of the specific designation basiliko/$ (“of the king, kingly, royal”). There are several ways this might be interpreted:

    • As the chief, ruling (or leading) Law—i.e., the “great commandment” of Lev 19:18
    • As an honorific adjective emphasizing the nobility/greatness of the Law as a whole (the Torah and/or the teaching of Jesus)
    • Indicating that the Law (whether Lev 19:18 or the “Law” as a whole) has been given specifically by the King—God as King and/or Jesus Christ as Lord
    • It is the Law that the King (and those of the Kingdom) follow
    • It pertains generally to the King and the Kingdom (of God)

Before attempting a more definite interpretation, it is important to note the line of logic that stems from the expression “the royal Law”:

    • It is first identified with a specific commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) (v. 8)
    • The one who violates this command (by showing favoritism to the rich) is condemned under the Law as a transgressor (v. 9)
    • One who fails to keep the Law at just one point (i.e. a single command) is guilty of violating the entire Law (v. 10-11, cf. Gal 5:2)—more precisely, in its original (ancient) context, this means that the agreement (the covenant) between God and his people is broken, as the Law represents the effective terms of the covenant (see esp. Deut 27-28, and Paul’s reference to the curse that results from violating the covenant in Gal 3:10ff).
    • Believers must speak and act in a similar manner (v. 12a)—cf. the exhortation in James 1:21ff, where believers are called to be people who do the Word (lo/go$), just as Israelites and Jews were obligated to do the Law
    • Just as Israelites and Jews are judged under the Law (the Torah), so believers are, in a sense, judged under “the Law of freedom” (v. 12b)

From this we may conclude that “the royal Law” has a two-fold denotation in this passage:

    1. It is identified with a specific command—Jesus’ “great command” (Lev 19:18), as taught and exemplified by him
    2. It is also parallel with the expression “the Law of freedom”, representing the entire Law for believers—the Gospel and teaching of Jesus, and the Christian (ethical) instruction which derives from it, i.e. the Word/Logos of 1:21-25

This Law is described as kingly/royal (basiliko/$) likewise in a two-fold sense:

    • It expresses the will of God (as King) and of Christ (as Lord)
    • It is the Law followed by the King and those of the Kingdom

In the previous note, I explored the way that the expression “the Law of freedom” and the use of lo/go$ (in 1:21ff) may draw in part from Greek philosophical language, as preserved and transmitted in Judaism. This appears to be confirmed by the parallel use here of “the royal Law”. For example, note several key references in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, such as On the Life of Moses II.4: “(on the one hand) the king is an ensouled [i.e. living] Law, and (on the other hand) the Law is (also) a just king”. Reason (lo/go$) is the “royal road” which the wise and just person follows (On the Special Laws IV.168, On the Posterity and Exile of Cain §101, On the Giants §64). One should also consider 4 Maccabees 14:2, where reason (lo/go$) is associated with both royalty and freedom, as here in James. This sort of language and imagery continued on in the writings of early Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria, who were likewise influenced by Greek philosophical expression (cf. Stromateis 6.162.2, 7.73.5). [On these and other references, see esp. M. Dibelius’ commentary on James in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press (1975), pp. 142-144.]

One should also note here the profound identification of the Law (“the royal Law”) with mercy (e&leo$), as the concluding statement in verse 13 makes clear. Actually this emphasis on mercy runs throughout the passage—the warning against showing favoritism to the rich and powerful in the world derives fundamentally from the concern and care one ought to show toward the poor and lowly. James emphasizes this at several points, especially in 1:27 where care for orphans and widows is defined as an essential component of true religious behavior and worship before God. It is also an important theme throughout Jesus’ teaching. In the Christmas season (soon approaching this year), which, at its finest moments, beautifully reflects this same exhortation to show love and care for the poor, and to be at peace with our neighbors, careful study and reflection on James 2:1-13 is altogether appropriate and worthwhile.

Supplemental Note on James 1:25 (“The Law of Freedom”)

This note is supplemental to the article on the Law in the letter of James (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). There are two primary references to the Law (o( no/mo$) in James, involving two particular expressions, which will be discussed in turn.

1. “The Law of freedom” (no/mo$ [th=$] e)leuqeri/a$)—James 1:25; 2:12

In James 1:25, the expression is actually “the complete Law of freedom”, including the adjective te/leio$ (“complete, finished”):

“but the (one) bending alongside (to look) into the complete Law th(at is) of freedom and remaining alongside…this (one) will be happy/blessed in his doing”

As discussed in the recent article, the context of verse 25 identifies the Law with the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (e&mfuto$) believers. I take lo/go$ (lógos) here in a comprehensive sense, as the Gospel message and the teachings of Jesus, as well as (authoritative) Christian instruction generally. However, the author may also be drawing upon Hellenistic Jewish language and imagery (influenced by Greek philosophy) in the use of lo/go$ (cf. below). For the idea of Jesus’ word(s) as a seed, or involving other planting images, see the previous article. There are a number of references in Scripture to God’s word being within a person (i.e. in the heart), cf. Deut 30:14; Psalm 119:11, and especially in the New Testament (Matt 13:19 par; John 5:38; 8:37; 1 Thess 2:13; Col 3:16; 1 John 1:10; 2:14, etc), where the “word of God” is virtually interchangeable with the “word(s) of Christ”.

In what sense is this Law the “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ th=$ e)leuqeri/a$)? There are three possibilities:

    • Following the Law leads to freedom—This is attested for the Torah in Jewish tradition (e.g., m. Abot 3:5; 6:2; Baba Kamma 8:6; b. Baba Metzia 85b, cf. Davids, p. 99*); in other words, the Law gives freedom to those who faithfully observe its commands. Paul, of course, says virtually the opposite, often declaring that in Christ believers are freed from bondage under the Law (Gal 2:16; 3:10-14, 19-26; 4:4-5, 21-31; 5:1-6; Rom 3:20; 5:20-21; 7:1-6, 7ff; 8:2ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; note also Acts 13:38-39). Jesus in the Gospel of John promises freedom to his followers, those who hear (and keep) his word (Jn 8:32-36).
    • We follow the Law freely, not out of obligation or compulsion—As I have discussed previously, Paul appears to have held such a view for Jewish believers (himself included) with regard to the Torah: they may continue to observe its commands and regulations voluntarily, on the basis of the freedom they now have in Christ, no longer as a binding requirement. With regard to the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, the so-called letter of Barnabas (2:6) expresses the point clearly: “the new Law of our Lord Jesus Christ, being without the yoke of necessity [a&neu zugou= a)na/gkh$]”. Jesus himself refers to the “yoke” of his teaching (and example) as easy and light (Matt 11:29-30), while criticizing the ‘burdensome’ teaching and tradition of the Pharisees (Matt 23:2ff). The Old Testament Law is described as a burdensome yoke in Acts 15:10, and by Paul as a “yoke of slavery” in Gal 5:1.
    • The Law is a product of the freedom we have in Christ—According to Paul, believers are guided principally by the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ (and God) and represents the freedom we have in him (2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13ff; Rom 8:2ff, 21); by way of this guidance, we naturally fulfill the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21), which is no longer the commands of the Torah per se. Note the general similarity between James 2:8-12 and Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10.

The first interpretation best characterizes the expression here in James, especially when one considers the additional adjective te/leio$ (“the complete Law of freedom”). In Jewish tradition, the Law would have been regarded, generally speaking, as “perfect” and complete (Psalm 19:7, cf. also the Epistle of Aristeas §31, etc). In the New Testament, however, the adjective te/leio$ is used more precisely of the will (and character) of God, and of believers who conform themselves to it (Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 14:20; Col 4:12). In Matt 19:21 it is specifically tied to following Jesus—his teaching and example—as also in Phil 3:15 (and Eph 4:13); while in Col 1:28 believers are complete in terms of their union with Christ. All of this reinforces the view, expressed above, that the Law (no/mo$) here is not simply the Old Testament Law (Torah), but the Gospel and teaching of Jesus as transmitted to believers through Christian instruction and tradition. That this teaching still relates to the fundamental ethical commands of the Torah, is clear from the second use of the expression “Law of freedom” in James 2:12 (to be discussed further in the next note).

Even though the letter of James says nothing directly about the Spirit, it is possible that the “implanted word” (o( e&mfuto$ lo/go$) indicates something deeper and more abiding than simply the content of the Gospel message and teaching of Jesus which believers have received and assimilated. Within Hellenistic Judaism, under the influence of Greek (especially Stoic) philosophical terminology and concepts, the lo/go$ (logos) was used in reference to the indwelling reason, which the wise and just person followed, as a guiding principle or Law. Following the “law” of reason—the same Reason/Lo/go$ which orders and governs the universe—brings both freedom and completion/perfection to the wise person (cf. Epictetus Diss. 4.1; M. Aurelius 7.9; 10.33, etc). Seneca (On the blessed life 15.7) even states this principle in theological terms that nearly echo Judeo-Christian teaching (deo parere libertas est, “to obey God is freedom”). Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are roughly contemporary with the letter of James, brings Stoic teaching into line with Old Testament/Jewish tradition—of many references, cf. On the Creation of the World §3, The Life of Moses II.48-52, On the Decalogue §1ff [throughout], and, especially the treatise Every Good Man Is Free (e.g. §45) [cf. Dibelius/Greeven, pp. 116-118*].

In this regard, it may be instructive to look at the other places where lo/go$ is used in the letter:

    • James 1:18, where the expression is “the account/word of truth” (lo/go$ a)lhqei/a$)—here it is stated that “willing (it), he [i.e. God] was swollen with us [i.e. was pregnant/gave birth to us] in/by the word of truth“. The lo/go$ then is the power (or means) by which believers are given birth as the offspring of God. The word a)parxh/ (“beginning from [i.e. of the harvest]”, often rendered “first fruits”), is used by Paul in a similar sense, both of believers (Rom 8:23; 11:16; 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15; 2 Thess 2:13) and of Christ himself (1 Cor 15:20, 23).
    • James 1:21-22, part of the current passage (rel. to the reference in v. 25)—the author makes a distinction between simply hearing the word and doing the word as well. The lo/go$ then clearly represents something which a person does, similar to the way in which one does (that is observes/fulfills) the Law.
    • James 3:2—here lo/go$ is used in the simple, conventional sense of the word[s] a person says or speaks; interestingly, James also uses the adjective te/leio$ (“complete”) together with lo/go$ in this verse:
      “If any (person) does not trip/fall in (giving) account [i.e. in word/speech], this (person) is a complete man…”

The second expression involving the Law (“the royal Law” no/mo$ basiliko/$, James 2:8) will be discussed in the next note.

* References marked “Dibelius/Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Hermeneia, rev. Heinrich Greeven, transl. Michael A. Williams; Fortress Press [1975]); those marked “Davids” are to Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Eerdmans / Paternoster Press [1982]).

The Law in the Letter of James (Part 1)

The Law in the Letter of James

Introduction

By tradition, the “James” of the letter—who describes himself in the text simply as “a slave/servant of God and of (the) Lord Jesus Christ” —is James the brother of Jesus, the leading figure (after Peter) of the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 12:17; 15; 21:18ff; Gal 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:7). This identification is almost certainly correct; the only real issue is whether the letter is authentically by James or is pseudonymous. On this question, scholarly opinion is divided; as also is the dating of the letter, which ranges widely—from very early (40s A.D.) to very late (90-100 A.D.). On the basis of a careful and unbiased study of the letter, I find little that points to a date beyond 60-70 A.D.; the similarity of subject matter and terminology with Paul’s letters (Galatians/Romans), as well as 1 Peter, suggests a comparable milieu—somewhere between 50-60 A.D. The lack of any developed Christology is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of an early date.

If we take James 1:1 literally, then the letter was addressed to Jews of the Diaspora/Dispersion, “to the twelve tribes th(at are) in the scattering-throughout [diaspora/]”. We find similar Jewish imagery applied (symbolically) to Christians generally in 1 Peter, but here in James it seems certain that Jews (or Jewish Christians) are intended. The work is undoubtedly Christian, despite the relatively scant references to Christ or specific Christian doctrine (James 1:1, 18ff; 2:1; 5:7, 14, etc). The strongest evidence for this are the many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel. This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the Torah. The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

    • James 1:2—Matt 5:11-12 / Lk 6:23
    • James 1:4—Matt 5:48
    • James 1:5—Matt 7:7 (also Lk 11:9)
    • James 1:17—Matt 7:11 (also Lk 11:13)
    • James 1:20—Matt 5:22
    • James 1:22-23—Matt 7:24-26 / Lk 6:46-49
    • James 2:5—Matt 5:3-5 / Lk 6:20
    • James 2:10-11—Matt 5:19, 21-22
    • James 2:13—Matt 5:7
    • James 2:15—Matt 6:25
    • James 3:12—Matt 7:16 / Lk 6:44-45
    • James 3:18—Matt 5:9
    • James 4:2-3—Matt 7:7-8
    • James 4:4—Matt 6:24 (also Lk 16:13)
    • James 4:8—Matt 6:22
    • James 4:9—Matt 5:4 / Lk 6:25
    • James 4:11-12—Matt 7:1
    • James 4:13-14—Matt 6:34
    • James 5:1—Lk 6:24-25
    • James 5:2, 6—Matt 6:19-20; Lk 6:37
    • James 5:9—Matt 5:22; 7:1
    • James 5:10—Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23
    • James 5:12—Matt 5:34-37

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

    • James 1:6—Matt 21:21; Mk 11:23-24
    • James 1:9-10—Matt 18:4; Lk14:11; note also Matt 6:29-30
    • James 1:12—Matt 10:22
    • James 1:21—Lk 8:8
    • James 2:6—Lk 18:3
    • James 2:8—Matt 22:39-40
    • James 2:14-16—Matt 25:31-46
    • James 3:1-12—Matt 12:36-37
    • James 3:13-18—Matt 11:19
    • James 4:10—Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14
    • James 4:17—Lk 12:47
    • James 5:5—Lk 16:19
    • James 5:7—Mk 4:26-29
    • James 5:8—Matt 24:3, 27, 39
    • James 5:17—Lk 4:25
    • James 5:19—Matt 18:15; Lk 17:3

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus. It is important to keep this in mind when examining James’ view of the Law.

It is now time to look at the most relevant passages in James with regard to the Law.

James 1:21-25

The theme of this passage is the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (adj. e&mfuto$) believers. In using lo/go$ here, the author probably means it in a comprehensive sense, including:

    • The Gospel message, centered on the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with a proclamation of deliverance/salvation and new life in Christ
    • The teachings of Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. above) preserved and transmitted by apostles, missionaries and teachers such as “James”
    • Authoritative early Christian instruction and teaching, delivered principally by the apostles and fellow-missionaries

Paul uses lo/go$ with a similar range of meaning. Jesus also refers to his word (identified with the word of God) in the context of being planted (cf. Mark 4:4-8, 26-27, 31 par; Matt 7:17-19; 12:33; 13:24ff; 15:13; John 8:37; 15:1-7). In the Gospel of John, the lo/go$ is identified more directly with the person of Christ, and he (in/through the Spirit) himself is the living, eternal seed in the believer (cf. John 5:38; 6:53; 12:23-24; 14:17, 20; 15:4; 17:21; 1 John 2:14; 3:9). James does not go quite that far—his description of this lo/go$ as “the (thing) having power to save your souls” is reminiscent of Paul’s famous declaration regarding the Gospel in Rom 1:16. That this “word/account” serves much the same role for believers as the Old Testament Law previously did for Israel—this is indicated in several ways in the passage:

    • James exhorts people to become ones who do (poihtai/, “doers” of) the word (v. 22); this parallels closely the idea of “doing” the Law (i.e. observance of the Torah commands), cf. Gal 3:10-12; Rom 2:13, etc. The context makes clear that “doing” the lo/go$ involves (normative) ethical behavior and performance of good deeds.
    • There is also a normative, governing quality of the lo/go$ indicated by the metaphor of the mirror in vv. 23-24 (cf. Sirach 12:11; Wisdom 7:26). In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, the Torah also allows a person to see clearly, though more often the image is of light or a lamp (Psalm 119:105; Isa 51:4, etc).
    • A connection with the Law (o( no/mo$) is made specific in verse 25—one looks into the Word (lo/go$), one looks into the Law (no/mo$). Note the following details here that seem to echo both Paul and Jesus’ teaching:
      —This Law is called “complete” (te/leio$, cf. also vv. 4, 15; 3:2); note the important usage of this adjective in Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13, as well as the related verb tele/w (“[make] complete”, sometimes in the context of fulfilling the Law, e.g. Luke 2:39; Matt 17:24; Rom 2:27; James 2:8), and the noun te/lo$ (“completion, end”, note esp. Rom 10:4).
      —It is also called the Law of freedom (e)leuqeri/a$); in this context, it is impossible to ignore Paul’s references to the freedom of believers with regard to the Law (cf. Gal 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 7:1-6; 8:2ff, etc).
      —Doing this Law is referred to as “work” (e&rgon); again, one is immediately reminded of Paul’s regular expression “works [of the Law]” (e&rga [no/mou]), cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Rom 3:20, 27-28; 4:2, 6; 9:11, 32; 11:6; also Eph 2:9.
      —Doing this Law leads to beatitude (maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”); the famous beatitudes in Jesus’ teaching (Matt 5:3-12, etc) are closely tied to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God. For the Pauline teaching on the relationship between the Law and the justice/righteousness of God, see Rom 1:17; 2:13; 3:21ff; 4:3-13; 7:12ff; 8:3-4; 9:30-31; 10:3-6, et al.

The expression “the complete Law of freedom” is discussed in a separate daily note.

James 1:27

In this verse the author declares what is “qrhskei/a clean and without stain/soil alongside [i.e. before] God”. The original meaning and derivation of the word qrhskei/a is uncertain, but it generally refers to religious worship and practice, and is often translated simply as “religion”; elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in Acts 26:5 and Col 2:18. In other words, James is defining what true and proper religion is before God: “to look upon (those) bereft (of parents) [i.e. orphans] and widows in their distress, (and) to keep oneself without spot from the world”. This definition is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which being that there is no mention of observing the Law, either generally or in its ceremonial sense. Instead we find a two-fold injunction which fairly summarizes much of the ethical teaching shared by Jews and Christians both, which ultimately derives from the Old Testament Scriptures (including the Torah): (1) to care for the poor and needy (esp. widows and orphans), and (2) to avoid the sinful/defiling influences of the world.

James 2:1-13

This passage can be divided into two sections: (a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). Overall the emphasis is on care for the poor (cf. above on 1:27) and acts of mercy. It is in this context that the author of the letter makes his most prominent direct reference to the Law (o( no/mo$). Two principal points are made:

    1. Anyone who fails to fulfill the Law in one detail is guilty of violating all of it (v. 10; Paul makes much the same point in Gal 5:3). The verb ptai/w, rare in the New Testament (Rom 11:11; James 3:2; 2 Pet 1:10), refers to tripping and falling, used often in a metaphorical sense of failure.
    2. Showing partiality to the rich and mighty, which in turns shows lack of proper care for the poor and lowly, is a sin and a violation of the Law (v. 9)—indeed, it violates the “royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) (v. 8).

Because of the importance of this passage, it will be discussed in more detail—along with the expressions “royal Law” (v. 8) and “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$, v. 12)—in a separate note.

January 19: John 1:34 (continued)

John 1:34, continued

In order to gain a better understanding of the declaration by John the Baptist in verse 34 (and the important text-critical question in the verse, cf. the previous note), it is necessary to examine the narrative context of vv. 19-51. As previously discussed, verses 29-34 make up one of four sections in the narrative, which are joined together using the literary device of setting the four episodes on four successive days. This may be outlined, again, as follows:

    • Day 1—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity (1:19-28)
    • Day 2—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus (1:29-34)
    • Day 3—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness (1:35-42)
    • Day 4—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness (1:43-51)

The first “Day” involves the question of John the Baptist’s identity. He specifically denies any identification with three figures or titles— “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), “Elijah”, and “the Prophet”. The last two relate to a Messianic Prophet figure-type, drawn from the Old Testament figures of Elijah and Moses (Deut 18:15-20); this subject is discussed further in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Part 3). It is not entirely clear whether “the Anointed One” refers to a Messiah generally, a Messianic Prophet, or the traditional Messianic ruler from the line of David; based on the overall context of vv. 29-51, the latter is more likely.

The second and third “Days” follow a similar pattern; each begin with John the Baptist’s identification of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (vv. 29, 36). Each ends with a distinct declaration regarding Jesus’ identity. The declaration of the second day is that of verse 34; that of the third day again involves the title Messiah— “We have found the Messiah!” (v. 41), where the Hebrew word j^yv!m* is transliterated as Messi/a$ (before being translated, “Anointed One” [Xristo/$]).

This common Messianic theme, running through the narrative episodes, would perhaps suggest that the reading “Chosen/Elect One” is to be preferred, since this title (presumably derived from Isa 42:1) is more directly Messianic than is “Son of God”. This is certainly the case with its use in Lk 9:35 and 23:35, the only other occurrences in the New Testament where the title is applied to Jesus.

However, a careful examination of the fourth “Day” (vv. 43-51) points in the opposite direction. Here the declaration regarding Jesus’ identity, made by Nathanael (v. 49), is two-fold:

“You are the the Son of God, you are the King of Israel

The thematic and narrative structure suggests that these two titles are parallel to those in the declarations of the 2nd and 3rd days:

    • “Son of God” = “<Chosen | Son> of God” (v. 34)
    • “King of Israel” = “Messiah” (v. 41)

The parallelism would tend to favor “Son” in v. 34, if only slightly. This, along with the overwhelming external manuscript evidence (in favor of “Son”), makes it the preferred reading. Still, the matter is far from decisive, and it is worth keeping the variant “Elect/Chosen One” well in mind whenever you read this passage. Consider how the two titles (and concepts) are closely intertwined in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration scene, in which the voice from Heaven declares (according to the best manuscripts):

“This is my Son, the Elect/Chosen One [o( e)klelegme/no$]…” (9:35)

The title “Elect/Chosen (One)” here takes the form of a substantive (perfect) participle of the verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”), from which the adjective e)klekto/$ is derived. Literally, it would be translated “the (one) having been gathered out” (o( e)klelegme/no$), but it is essentially identical in meaning to o( e)klekto/$. The latter occurs as a title of Jesus, albeit delivered mockingly to him, in Lk 23:35, and is clearly used in a Messianic sense (“the Anointed [One], the Elect/Chosen [One] of God”). There can be no real doubt that the same significance is to be found in its usage in the Lukan Transfiguration scene.

The Transfiguration scene, of course, parallels the earlier Baptism scene in the Synoptic Gospels, in which the voice from Heaven makes a similar declaration (in Matthew they are identical). Now, the Gospel of John only narrates the Baptism indirectly (vv. 29-34), through the testimony of John the Baptist, who witnesses the visionary phenomena. His declaration is in the same climactic position as the Divine/Heavenly voice in the Synoptics:

Yet consider, too, a comparison with the variant reading from John—

    • “You are My Son…” / “This is My Son…”
    • “This is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34 v.l.)

which matches the words of the heavenly voice in Lk 9:35:

“You are my Son, the Chosen One”

This declaration, in turn, is an echo of Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of “My Servant [db#u#]…my Chosen (One) [ryj!B^]…”. In Greek, db#u# is translated by pai=$, which can also mean “child” — “my Child” is obviously close in meaning to “my Son“. At the same time, ryj!B^ is translated by  e)klekto/$, the same word used in Jn 1:34 v.l. (and related to that in Lk 9:35).

It may be helpful at this point to summarize three important aspects of the Johannine tradition in vv. 19-51:

    • The narrative, despite its adapation of the early Gospel tradition into the Johannine idiom, preserves authentic historical tradition. For more on this, cf. the articles dealing with Jn 1:19-51 in my earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (The Baptism of Jesus).
    • This early tradition specifically relates to the identity of Jesus as the “Anointed One” (Messiah), and particularly so in terms of the Messianic Prophet figure-type(s). It is the Anointed herald of the (Deutero-)Isaian oracles (e.g., 42:1ff; 61:1ff) that is most clearly in view, and is the figure with which Jesus was identified in the earliest strands of the Tradition. Cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
    • Again, in the earliest tradition, the title “Son of God” was fundamentally Messianic in significance. Even though the Gospel of John clearly understands the title in terms of a pre-existence Christology, it still retains the older, traditional meaning as well.

None of this is sufficient to decide the text-critical question of which title— “Son of God” or “Elect/Chosen One of God” —was the original reading. Both titles are appropriate to the Messianic context of vv. 19-51, and, in a sense, can be seen as interchangeable (or, at least, complementary). As noted above, the overwhelming manuscript support, as well as the Johannine usage, favors the reading “Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), and I am inclined to adopt it, by a narrow margin. The Baptist’s declaration would then read:

“And I have seen and have witnessed that this (one) is the Son of God

In so doing, John is the first to give witness to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. In the context of the Gospel Prologue, this refers to his identity as the pre-existent Son; however, in the immediate context of the narrative (vv. 19-51), and in terms of the early Gospel tradition, the title is to be understood in a Messianic sense (i.e., “Anointed One” = “Elect/Chosen One”). Both aspects are fundamental to the Johannine theology, and must be taken into account when summarizing the Christological portrait in the Gospel. No better summary can be found than the confessional statement by Martha in 11:27:

“I have trusted that you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God…”

This confession holds roughly the same place in the Gospel of John as Peter’s confession does in the Synoptics (Mk 8:29 par). It also is close in form and sense to the Baptist’s declaration in 1:34, especially if we were to combine the two variant readings:

“I have seen…that this (one) is the Elect/Chosen (One), the Son of God”

An even more precise confessional formula is used by the author in his conclusion to the Gospel:

“I have written these (thing)s (so) that you would trust that Yeshua is the Anointed (One), the Son of God…” (20:31)

The uniqueness of the Johannine Gospel lies in the way that the earlier Gospel tradition, which understood the title “Son (of God)” primarily in a Messianic sense, has been adapted and developed to give a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning to the traditional manner of expression. Jesus is still the Anointed One, exalted by God the Father through his death and resurrection; but he is also something more: the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos, who was, even in the very beginning, the Son resting together with God the Father in the bond of His eternal love and power.

January 18: John 1:34

John 1:34

The Johannine account of the Baptism of Jesus concludes with a revelatory declaration by John the Baptist regarding the true identity of Jesus:

“And I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is the <…> of God

The use of the verbs o(ra/w (“see”) and marture/w (“[give] witness”) frame the declaration by the Baptist in decidedly Johannine theological terms. Both verbs have a special significance in the Gospel of John, as do the concepts of seeing (sight/vision) and witnessing. In the Johannine theological context, these verbs carry a deeper meaning than might otherwise be suggested by their use in the narrative. This meaning refers primarily to a recognition of who Jesus is—viz., his identity as the Messiah and Son of God. On the theological aspect of John the Baptist’s witness of the Baptism event here in vv. 31-33, cf. the discussion in the previous note.

The use of the perfect tense (as in the case of both verbs here) typically indicates a past action or condition that continues into the present. John the Baptist’s revelation regarding the identity of Jesus continues to have abiding force—both when the Gospel was written, and for all those who have read the record of his witness in the centuries since.

The portion of verse 34 in bold above represents the unit where an important textual variation occurs, with the point of variance marked by angle brackets. There are two main variant readings for this unit:

    1. “…the (one) gathered out of [i.e. by] God” (o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=)—that is, “the Elect/Chosen (one) of God”
    2. “…the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=)

The conflated reading “…the Elect/Chosen Son of God”, found in a few witnesses, is clearly secondary and can be disregarded; however, it does show that both readings above were familiar to certain copyists.

These two variants are of true significance, since they cut to the heart of the Baptist’s declaration of who Jesus is. The majority reading has “Son” (ui(o/$); however, in a number of manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* 77 218 b e ff2* and Old Syriac versions) it is “elect/chosen (one)” (e)klekto/$ lit. “gathered out”)—i.e. “the Son of God” vs. “the Elect (One) of God”. The reading with ui(o/$ (“son”) is found nearly every Greek manuscript, and, normally, such overwhelming external evidence would decide the question. Moreover, this reading is fully in accordance with the Gospel usage throughout, and the Johannine theology, with the repeated emphasis on Jesus as the Son. This same emphasis is found in the Prologue (see esp. vv. 14, 18), and given the related Prologue references to John the Baptist as a witness (vv. 6-9, 15), it would be most appropriate for the Baptist here to bear witness that Jesus is the “Son of God”.

On the other hand, the reading with e)klekto/$ (“gathered out,” i.e., elect/chosen) is unquestionably more difficult. Based on the principle of difficilior lectio potior (“the more difficult reading is preferred”), and the fact that the minority reading is found in a relative wide range of witnesses, might well lead one to regard it as original. Indeed, as a number of commentators have noted, it is extremely hard to explain how (or why) ui(o/$ would ever have been changed to e)klekto/$, while the reverse would be rather easy to explain, given that:

    • The tendency of copyists was to enhance, rather than reduce, the Christological significance of a passage; and “Son of God” is unquestionably the more exalted title, especially as it came to be understood by Christians in the following centuries.
    • “Son of God” is also by far the more familiar title; even among first-century Christians, to judge by the New Testament evidence, “Elect/Chosen One” was quite rare by comparison.
    • The title “Son” is also fully in keeping with the regular Johannine usage, whereas neither the work e)klekto/$ nor the basic concept of “chosen (one)” is ever applied to Jesus in the Johannine writings.

The evidence thus is evenly divided, making it extremely difficult to decide the textual question. A more detailed consideration of vocabulary and style may give further clarification:

As noted above, the adjective e)klekto/$ does not occur elsewhere in the Gospel of John, but the related verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out,” i.e., “choose”) is used five times, all by Jesus, and always in reference to the disciples, i.e. as those chosen by him (6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19). Indeed, throughout the New Testament, both the adjective (as a noun) and the verb are typically used of believers (Matt 13:20; 22:14; Lk 6:13; 18:7; Acts 1:2; Rom 8:33; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Eph 1:4; 1 Pet 1:1, etc), and only rarely of Jesus (Lk 9:35; 23:35; cf. below). By contrast, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son” many times in the Gospel of John. The title “Son of God” is less frequent, but still occurs 8 times, declared by others (Jn 1:49; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31) as often as by Jesus himself (3:18; 5:25; 10:36; 11:4). It is also relative common (7 times) in 1 John (3:8; 4:15; 5:5, 10-13, 20). A consideration of style and vocabulary would thus tend to favor the reading “Son of God” in Jn 1:34.

The context of the Gospel Prologue also favors this reading, as mentioned above. However, if one considers the narrative in 1:19-51 on its own, apart from the Prologue, then we find a rather different thematic emphasis, and one which could be said to favor the reading “Elect/Chosen One”. This involves several aspects of the Johannine narrative that are sometimes overlooked by scholars: (1) the distinct manner in which the Gospel preserves authentic tradition, (2) the strong Messianic context of the early Gospel tradition, and (3) the emphasis on Jesus as the Messiah, in relation to his identity as the “Son of God”.

We will examine these points, together, in the next daily note.

 

January 17: John 1:33

John 1:33

Verse 33 is curious in that it essentially repeats the information from verses 31-32 (discussed in the previous notes). It is one of several repetitions and ‘doublets’ in this section, which commentators have sought to explain in a variety of ways. Actually, such repetition/doublets seem to be part of the Johannine literary style, and many examples could be cited from throughout the Discourses. One way to explain this, as a mode of composition by the Gospel writer, is that parallel but distinct source-traditions have been creatively combined together into a single narrative. However, in this case it is perhaps better to view the matter as a combination of different interpretive approaches by the Gospel writer to a common tradition.

It may be useful to compare verses 31-32 and 33 in context here:

Vv. 31-32
John: “And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but (so) that he should be made to shine forth to Yisrael, through this [i.e. for this reason] I came dunking in water.”
Narration: “And Yohanan gave witness, saying that ‘I looked at the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him’.”

V. 33
John: “And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but the (One) sending me to dunk in water—that (One) said to me”
Heavenly voice: “The (one) upon whom you should see the Spirit stepping down and remaining upon him”
Trad. saying (adapted): “this is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit”

There is clear parallelism at work, but, as is often the case in the Gospel of John, the apparent repetitiveness is actually a sign of careful composition and a purposeful literary structure. The reasonably precise parallelism serves to highly the differences between the two versions, and these differences are more significant than might appear at first glance. We may summarize it this way:

    • Vv. 31-32 record John’s witness as to what he saw
    • V. 33 records John’s witness as to what God revealed to him

These are both important, and complementary, aspects, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology. It also demonstrates the special and unique way that the Gospel writer adapted the established tradition. Recall that there are two fundamental components to the Baptism tradition: (a) visual (descent of the Spirit), and (b) aural (voice from heaven). These correspond to the two ‘versions’ of the Johannine account: (a) what John saw (vv. 31-32), and (b) what he heard God say to him (v. 33).

Moreover, there is a reverse progression in vv. 31-33; that is to say, verses 31-32 depend on v. 33, even though verse 33 comes after vv. 31-32 in the narrative. John would not be able to give the witness that he does in vv. 31-32, if God had not first revealed the information to him in vv. 33. In this way, the Gospel writer, through his carefully constructed narrative, takes the reader back to the revelatory point experienced by John himself. In effect, the reader, through the inspired narrative, experiences the same revelation. On the importance of John as a source of revelation regarding the person of Jesus, cf. also 3:26-30ff; 5:33-35.

Some comment must be made regarding one particular adaptation of the Baptism tradition: the use of the verb me/nw (“remain”), an important Johannine keyword, which occurs here in both verse 32 and 33. The common tradition is followed in stating that the Spirit “stepped down” (vb katabai/nw) out of heaven as a dove, coming “upon” (e)pi/) Jesus. However, the phrasing in the Johannine version involves the Spirit stepping down and remaining on Jesus. Given the importance of the verb me/nw for the Johannine theology, this is surely significant. Even though the idea of the Spirit resting upon Jesus, may be part of the traditional (Messianic) imagery, based on the wording, for example, in Isa 11:2 (cp. Testament of Judah 24:1ff; Testament of Levi 18:7), the specific Johannine use of me/nw gives to the scene an even deeper meaning.

It is at just this point, however, that the Johannine Christological portrait seems to be somewhat at odds with the Baptism tradition. In the context of the core Gospel narrative, it is only after the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that he is empowered to proclaim the Kingdom, teach/preach the Divine message, and work healing miracles. There is not the slightest suggestion in the Synoptic Gospels of the divine pre-existence of Jesus. Fundamentally, his identity as the Son of God begins at the Baptism (Mk 1:10-11 par), marked by the coming of the Spirit upon him.

The Gospel of John, however, evinces a strong pre-existence Christology, identifying Jesus as the Son of God even prior to his life/existence on earth. This is declared (and affirmed), not only in the Prologue, but throughout the Gospel Discourses as well. It may be that the Gospel writer, here in vv. 29-34, has simply retained the core Gospel (and historical) tradition, without altering it substantially to fit the Johannine Christology. Even so, we must ask what significance the theologically charged verb me/nw has in this context.

Throughout the Johannine Discourses, this verb is used to express the abiding relationship (and union) between God the Father and Jesus (the Son). By extension, this same sense of union applies to the relationship between Jesus and believers. In the Last Discourse, in particular, Jesus repeatedly refers to his disciples “remaining” in him, and he in them. The Vine illustration (and its exposition) in 15:1-16 alone contains 11 occurrences of the verb me/nw. This abiding union is realized through the presence of the Spirit, which comes upon believers and dwells in and among them.

Based on the Johannine Christology, expressed most clearly in the Last Discourse, the Spirit also represents the bond of unity shared by God the Father and Jesus the Son. And yet, this fact renders somewhat problematic the traditional Baptism scene recorded in vv. 29-34, where the Spirit comes upon Jesus much as it does upon his disciples (believers). If Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God, sharing the Divine Life and existence with God the Father, would he not already possess the Spirit in full measure? In that case, what is the purpose of the Spirit’s descent at the Baptism?

The question might be answered by way of the kenosis-theory (based on Phil 2:6-8), whereby Jesus “emptied” (vb keno/w) himself of his Divine position and status when he came to be born and live on earth as a human being. According to the kenotic theology, the emptied human Jesus was dependent upon the special presence of the Spirit, which came and empowered him at the Baptism—an empowerment that lasted throughout the time of his life on earth. The validity of this kenotic theology, in whole or in part, continues to be debated by theologians; in any event, it is not at all clear whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer held such a view of Jesus.

Perhaps the most serious objection to the kenotic hypothesis is that it is predicated upon a developed (post-Nicene) mode of Christological thinking, and it is highly questionable whether such a mode of thinking can (or should) be read back into the first-century context of the New Testament writings. I suspect that the Gospel writer is simply making use of the Baptism tradition without giving any real thought to all of the potential theological implications. The Johannine Christology required that there be some mention of the abiding presence of the Spirit with Jesus during his time on earth as the incarnate Word and Son of God. The Baptism tradition, with its record of the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus, was the best vehicle for establishing the fundamental connection between Jesus and the Spirit. From a literary standpoint, once this connection was established, the Gospel writer could then freely reference the incarnate Son’s possession of the Spirit—the same Spirit which God the Father possesses, and which the Father gave to the Son (3:34-35, etc)

One key point that the Johannine theology shares with the wider Gospel tradition is that Jesus’ empowerment by the Spirit’s presence was permanent, and, as such, differed fundamentally from the temporary inspiration of religious leaders and prophets (such as John the Baptist). The verb me/nw certainly captures this idea of permanence: the Spirit “remained” (e&meinen) upon Jesus. This theme also applies to our union (as believers) with Jesus—we remain in him through the abiding presence of the Spirit, and this presence is permanent.

Notes on Prayer: John 15:7, 16 (continued)

John 15:7-17, continued

The condition for the promise of answered prayer is stated two ways—in verses 7 and 16, respectively. The first involves the verb me/nw (“remain”), which is used repeatedly throughout the Vine illustration and its exposition (vv. 1-16). The importance (and significance) of this Johannine keyword was discussed in last week’s study. The condition requires that the believer “remains” connected and united with Jesus, by a bond that runs in two directions:

    • The believer “remains” in Jesus— “if you would remain in me…”
    • Jesus’ words “remain” in the believer— “…and my words [r(h/mata] would remain in you”

The conditional aspect of this two-fold clause is indicated by the use of the subjunctive, along with the governing particle e)a/n (“if”)— “if you would…”. On the surface, the idea that Jesus’ words remain in the believer would seem to refer, rather simply, to observance of Jesus’ various teachings, keeping them in one’s mind and heart. However, while not entirely invalid, such an interpretation is off the mark in terms of the Johannine theology and the context of Last Discourse. It might seem to be confirmed by the parallel, in the central exposition of vv. 9-14, with the statements regarding the ‘commandments’ (e)ntolai/) of Jesus, as though this referred to specific teachings given by Jesus to his disciples. But, again, I would maintain that this is incorrect.

The disciple will, of course, pay special attention to all that Jesus said and did, following both his teaching and his example. But the emphasis here in the Last Discourse is actually quite different. A proper understanding depends on the significance of the term e)ntolh/, as it is used in the Johannine writings. As I have previously discussed, while e)ntolh/ is typically translated as “command(ment)”, it more properly denotes a duty placed on a person—something that the person is obligated to fulfill or complete. While it can be used in reference to the requirements and regulations in the Torah, it gradually ceased to have this meaning for believers. Some early Christians sought to substitute a collection of teachings by Jesus (such as in the Sermon on the Mount), resulting in a new kind of Torah, but even this came to be at odds with the early Christian religious worldview—at least as it is expressed at key points in the New Testament Scriptures.

To understand the Johannine view of the term e)ntolh/, our best (and clearest) guide is the declaration in 1 John 3:23-24:

“And this is His e)ntolh/: that we should trust in the name of His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed), and (that) we should love each other, even as he gave us (this) e)ntolh/.”

It is a single duty (or ‘command’), which is also two-fold—that is, it has two components (trust and love), each of which is binding for believers. It may be said fairly that this dual charge is the only binding ‘commandment’ for believers in Christ—and that all other right moral and religious behavior stems from this one dual command. The interchangeability of the singular e)ntolh/ and plural e)ntolai/ in the Johannine writings tends to confirm this point.

The Love Command

Here in the Last Discourse, it is the love-component that is emphasized, reflecting a view of the so-called “love command” that was widely held among early Christians. This “love command” derives primarily from Jesus’ own teaching, exemplified in the Synoptic tradition by the famous saying of Jesus in Mark 12:30-31 par (cp. the ‘Golden Rule’ in Matt 7:12 par). Early Christians came to view this “love command” as effectively summarizing the entirety of the Old Testament Law (Torah), with the single command, as an expression of the way in which believers are committed to following the teaching and example of Jesus himself, coming to take the place of the myriad of Torah regulations. We see this tendency (and principle) stated in several different lines of early Christian tradition: in the writings of Paul (Gal 5:6, 13-14; Rom 13:8-10; 1 Cor 13; 16:14, etc), the letter of James (2:8ff, cf. also 1:25ff), and in the Johannine writings.

In the Gospel of John, the “love command” is presented as a direct, precise command (e)ntolh/) given by Jesus to his disciples—it introduces the Last Discourse (13:34-35), and runs throughout the Discourse as a central theme. Consider how it is emphasized here in 15:7-17, especially in the middle expository portion covering vv. 9-15:

    • Verses 9-12: Love (a)ga/ph), the significance of the “love command” —as the bond between believers and Jesus (and with God the Father)
    • Verse 13: The example of love in the person of Jesus
    • Verses 14-15: Those who follow Jesus’ example are beloved (“dear ones,” filoi) to him (and to God the Father)

The fundamental importance of the “love command” is illustrated by the careful thematic structure found in verses 9-10, which takes the form of a chiastic outline:

    • The Father has loved me (Jesus, the Son)
      • I have loved you (believers) in turn
        • e)ntolh/: “remain in my love”
          • you will remain in my love if
        • you keep my e)ntolai/ (love)
      • as I have kept my Father’s e)ntolai/ (love)
    • I remain in His (the Father’s) love

The ‘command’ —indeed, the ‘commandments’ [plural], and the “words” of Jesus (v. 7)—are all contained and embodied in the single comprehensive dynamic of love. This is not simply a command to love, though it may be expressed that way; rather, it is the very love that unites Jesus (the Son) with God the Father. The Father loves the Son, and the Son, in turn, loves the other “offspring” (children) of God—those believers who come to trust in Jesus as God’s Son. It is through the bond of love that we are united with Jesus, abiding and “remaining” in him, even as he “remains” in us. Since Jesus, as the Son, also abides in the bond of love with God the Father, when we “remain” in the Son, we “remain” in the Father as well (and He in us). This is the essence of the Johannine theology, particularly as it is expressed and expounded in the Last Discourse.

The Spirit

If the bond that unites with Father and Son is defined in terms of love, it may equally be understood in terms of the Spirit—the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among believers. It may be better to keep the idea of a bond associated specifically with love, since love (a)ga/ph) is expressed repeatedly as a binding requirement (e)ntolh/) in a way that the Spirit is not. The Spirit instead is a presence—the abiding presence of Jesus the Son, and, through the Son, the presence of God the Father as well. Through the Spirit, Jesus continues to speak and instruct his disciples. This is another way to understand the words of Jesus “remaining” in his disciples: through the Spirit who “remains” (that is, abides) in us (14:17). It is not simply a matter of the Spirit enabling Jesus’ disciples to recall and retain the things he said during his earthly ministry, though that is part of the picture (14:26). Rather,—and this must be emphasized—Jesus continues to speak to believers through the Spirit. Insofar as the Spirit “remains” in us, Jesus’ words—especially the ‘command’ to love—remain in us as well.

The identification of Jesus’ words with the Spirit of God is made clearly, and directly, in the statement of 6:63b: “the words [r(h/mata] that I have spoken to you are (the) Spirit and are (the) Life”. The term used here, as in 15:7, is r(h=ma, which properly means “utterance” (i.e., something spoken). However, it can also be used in a more general sense, and, in the Johannine writings, the noun r(h=ma is largely interchangeable with lo/go$. The “utterances” (r(h/mata) of Jesus cannot be reduced simply to a specific set of teachings, things he said during his earthly ministry; they are also a living word (r(h=ma), even as Jesus himself is the living Word (lo/go$) of God. And it is this living Word—which includes all of his “words” —that “remains” in us through the presence of the Spirit.

The role of the Spirit, in terms of the references to prayer in the Last Discourse, will be discussed further in the concluding study in this set. Next week, our study will cover three areas:

    • An examination of the closing reference to prayer here in verse 16
    • A survey of the remaining references to prayer in the Last Discourse, and
    • A consideration of how the various conditional statements relate to the promise of our requests (prayers) being answered by God

(For further study on the New Testament view of the Old Testament Law [Torah], and its significance for believers in Christ, you may wish to consult my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament” —especially the articles and notes on “Jesus and the Law” and “Paul’s View of the Law”.)

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 37 (Part 2)

Psalm 37, continued

The first section of Psalm 37 (vv. 1-11) was examined in the previous study. This is an acrostic Psalm, and I notate the opening letter of each verse in the translations below.

Verses 12-22

Verses 12-13

z “(The) wicked is planning [<m@z)] (evil) for (the) just,
and grinds his teeth upon him;
(but the) Lord laughs at him,
for He sees that his day comes.”

In the first section, the righteous are urged not to react in anger or resentment when the wicked appear to prosper in this life. This Wisdom-message is part of a general (and familiar) contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Here, however, the contrast has sharpened into a sense of outright hostility and opposition—that is, the wicked opposing and attacking the righteous—such as we have seen expressed in a number of other Psalms. We need not imagine that any particular adversaries are in view; rather, the hostility is characteristic of the wicked in general.

What the wicked intend for the righteous is referenced in the first couplet (v. 12); it is described in terms of planning (vb <m^z`)—that is, intentional acts of evil directed at the righteous. The inherent violence of what they intend is expressed through the familiar idiom of “grinding the teeth”.

God’s response to the evil plans of the wicked is described in the second couplet (v. 13). He simply laughs (vb qj^c*)—playfully and derisively—at all they intend to do. The dismissive laughter conveys two points. First, the righteous are under God’s protection, and, even if they do suffer for a time, they ultimately will be delivered and blessed/rewarded for their suffering. Second, whatever cruelty the wicked would inflict on the righteous is trivial and insignificant compared to great suffering that they (the wicked) themselves will endure on the day of Judgment.

Indeed, the “day” in v. 13 certainly is an early reference to the “day of YHWH” theme, as it would be developed in the Prophetic writings. The poetic idiom has not been sharpened to the point that it would be, for example, in the late pre-exilic and exilic Prophets. Here it simply refers, in a general sense, to the Judgment that the wicked will face at the time of their death (and thereafter). There can be little doubt that the death of the wicked is primarily in view.

Verses 14-15

j “(Their) sword [br#j#] (the) wicked (one)s open (wide),
and they tread their bow (as they string it),
(so as) to fell (the) oppressed and needy,
(and) to slay (the one)s straight o(n the) path;
(but) their sword will come in(to) their (own) heart,
and their bows will be shattered (to pieces).”

In the first pair of couplets, the evil plans of the wicked have taken the form of preparation for violent action. The preparation is expressed in the first couplet, using military imagery. The wicked “open” their swords, by which is meant drawing it out (into the open), so as to sharpen and whet it. The collective action of the wicked as a group (and character type) is indicated by the singular “sword” (br#j#). The wicked also step (“tread”) on their bows to string them, in preparation for using them in battle, etc. Again, the noun (tv#q#) is singular, though it also may be possible to parse/vocalize it as a plural (“their bows”, cf. Dahood, p. 228f).

The purpose of this weapon-preparation is expressed in the second couplet, with a pair of phrases governed by infinitives:

    • “to fell [i.e., cause to fall]” (lyP!h^l=)
    • “to slay [i.e., kill in a violent manner]” (j^obf=l!)

The purpose is to kill the righteous, but the language perhaps is meant to convey, in extreme terms, a range of cruel and violent actions. The righteous are characterized as “oppressed” (yn]u*) and “needy” (/oyb=a#). This identification of the righteous with people who are poor and oppressed may seem overly simplistic, but it is an essential aspect of the Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition. It is precisely because of their righteousness that there is such opposition from the wicked. The expectation of poverty and affliction suggests that the attacks by the wicked will succeed, at least for a time. In any case, painful experience has taught many devout believers the truth of this apparent contradiction. The day of Judgment (v. 13, cf. above) will correct any wrongs done to the righteous during this life.

The judgment-theme returns in the final couplet, utilizing the lex talionis and ‘reversal of fortune’ motifs found so frequently in the Psalms. By a harsh irony, what the wicked intended for the righteous will be turned upon their own person: their sword will enter their own heart bringing about their own death. The ultimate failure of the wicked is summarized by the image of their weapons (spec. their bows) being “shattered” by God.

Verses 16-17

f “Good [bof] (is the) little (belonging) to (the) just,
from (the) wealth of (the) wicked (who have) much;
for (the) arms of (the) wicked (one)s will be shattered,
but YHWH is giving support (for the) just (one)s.”

I have translated the Hebrew syntax /m!bof quite literally above (“Good [is]…from…”); however, such phrasing typically indicates a comparison. In conventional English, this would be rendered “Better is…than…”; a corresponding translation of the first couplet would be:

“Better (is the) little belonging to (the) just
than (the) wealth of (the) wicked (who have) much”

The just/righteous one (singular, qyD!x^) is juxtaposed with the wicked ones (plural, <yu!v*r=) who have much (<yB!r^). Some commentators would emend <yB!r^ to the singular br^, to reinforce the parallel with fu^m= (“little”) in the first line. However, there is good reason to maintain the reading of the Masoretic text here, with the plural <yB!r^ modifying <yu!v*r=. The contrast is between the righteous person, who is often poor and needy (v. 14), and the wealthy (i.e. successful/prosperous) wicked ones.

God’s support for the righteous, and opposition to the wicked, is expressed in the second couplet. Again, there is an allusion to the ultimate (final) Judgment of God upon the wicked, framed entirely in terms of the dualistic contrast of righteous vs. wicked.

Verses 18-19

y “YHWH knows [u^d@oy] (the) days of (the) complete (one)s,
and their portion shall be for (the) distant (future);
they will not dry (up) in (the) time of evil,
and in (the) days of hunger they will be satisfied.”

In these couplets, the attacks by the wicked have vanished, and the emphasis is on the future reward for the righteous. Clearly, the day of Judgment is in view, along with the blessed afterlife that awaits for the righteous (in contrast with the suffering and punishment that belongs to the wicked). This is very much part of the Wisdom-tradition as we see it expressed in the Psalms (cf. the earlier study on Psalm 1).

Here the righteous are characterized as the “complete (one)s” (<m!ym!t=)—that is, those who have proven themselves to be completely devoted to YHWH, pure in heart and mind, and obedient to the covenant bond between God and His people. The idea that YHWH “knows their days” implies the providential care that He has for the righteous, including the blessing that He will provide for them at the end of their life (i.e., in the afterlife). Indeed, the “portion” (hl*j&n~) that the righteous will inherit belongs to the “distant (future)”, or, in later Jewish terminology, “the Age to come”, which often signifies “eternal life”, i.e., the blessed life in heaven with God.

This blessing, in the second couplet, is described in terms of agricultural/farming imagery. Like the crops that come through to a successful harvest, the righteous will endure, and will not “dry up” (vb vby) in the harsh heat of summer (here called the “time of evil”). More than this, they will eat their fill and be satisfied (vb ubc), even in time of famine (“days of hunger”). Harvest imagery came to be a standard way of depicting the end-time Judgment, and of the inherent contrast between the righteous and wicked (i.e., the grain vs. the chaff).

Verse 20

k “(And it is) that [yK!] (the) wicked (one)s shall perish,
and (the one)s hostile (to) YHWH shall be finished—
like (the) rich(ness) of meadows (on fire),
they shall be finished (off) with smoke!”

This is a most difficult verse, and the certain confusion that is present in the lines (as they stand) suggests possible corruption in the text. Unfortunately, there is no help to be had here from the Dead Sea manuscripts, and any significant emendation would be highly questionable. As a tentative, working solution, I have made one small emendation, moving the first occurrence of the verb form WlK (“they will be finished”) back two words into the second line. The result is a 3-beat (3+3) couplet, followed by a short 2-beat (2+2) couplet. This gives to the unit a dramatic climax, and retains a relatively consistent poetic rhythm and structure.

The general sense of the verse is clear enough: it narrates the fate of the wicked, in contrast to that of the righteous (in vv. 18-19, cf. above). While the righteous will endure the heat of summer, and come through as fine crops for the harvest, the ‘fields’ of the wicked will be destroyed, burned up by fire. While the righteous are “complete” (<mt), the wicked are “completed” (llk)—that is, finished off, meeting their end; they are completely destroyed.

Unless there is something missing from the text, the last brief couplet, as we have it, gives only a vague allusion to fields being destroyed by fire. However, this seems to be the imagery that is involved, as a contrastive parallel with the positive harvest imagery in vv. 18-19. Even so, it must be admitted that any treatment of the verse, based on the current data available, must be regarded as tentative and preliminary. For different ways of understanding and rendering these lines, compare, for example, the approaches of Dahood (p. 230) and Kraus (p. 403).

Verse 21

l “(The) wicked borrows [hw#l)] and does not fulfill (his obligation),
but (the) just (person) is (always) showing favor and giving.”

This proverbial couplet, while rooted in the Wisdom-tradition that we find expressed throughout the Psalm, seems somewhat out of place here (and might fit better as part of the first section [cf. the previous study]). However, it continues the contrast between the righteous and the wicked that is central to this Wisdom-Psalm. The contrast is straightforward enough. The wicked person tends to borrow (vb hw`l*) but does not fulfill (vb <l^v*) his obligation. The righteous person, on the other hand, is always showing favor to others and giving (rather than taking). The pair of participles suggests an ongoing action, behavior that characterizes the righteous.

Verse 22

“For (the one)s being blessed by Him will possess (the) earth,
but (the one)s being cursed by Him will be cut off.”

This couplet continues the contrast from v. 21, and should be probably be joined with that verse as a unit, forming a pair of couplets. However, I have isolated it here as the climactic point that brings the section to a close. Likewise, the first section concluded with a promise that the righteous would “possess the earth” as an inheritance (v. 11), and the third section also ends in a similar manner (v. 29, to be discussed in the next study). As previously noted, Jesus essentially quotes verse 11 in his famous Beatitudes (Matt 5:5).

The contrast here involves a pair of passive participles, an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor. The righteous are designated as those “being blessed” (vb Er^B*) by YHWH, while the wicked are those “being cursed” (vb ll^q*) by Him. This juxtaposition of blessings/cursings is part of the ancient Near Eastern covenant pattern, as also is the contrasting fate of inheritance and being “cut off”. The faithful and loyal vassal will inherit a territory, while the one who violates the binding agreement will be “cut off” (tr^K*).

This ‘cutting’ was often symbolized, in ancient times, by the actual dismemberment of a sacrificial animal, sometimes accompanied by a formula that effectively affirmed, “as this animal has been cut up, so let it (i.e., so it will) be done to me if I violate the terms of this agreement,” etc. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the death penalty was not always applied in such situations, when the covenant with YHWH was violated—a symbolic “cutting off” could be substituted in its place. However, the idea that the transgressor will ultimately meet death at God’s hand (perhaps in a violent or untimely manner), is very much present in many Scripture passages, including a number of places in the Psalms. Almost certainly, the death of the wicked is in view here, along with indications of future punishment after death.

References marked “Dahood” above are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol 16 (1965).
References marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).