July 7: 1 John 5:16-19 (3)

1 John 5:16-17, continued

The author’s instruction in vv. 16-17 (cf. the previous note) would make more sense if “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) referred to ordinary physical life and death, respectively. The implication then would be that the sinning believer might well come to be chastised by God, possibly punished with illness—but not so far as to result in death. The context of the expression “not toward death” would then be comparable to Jesus’ statement (at least on the surface) regarding Lazarus’ illness, in Jn 11:4 (“this weakness [i.e. sickness] is not toward death [pro\$ qa/naton]”); cf. also James 5:14-16 for the idea of a sinning Christian being delivered from sickness through the prayer of other believers.

However, in the Johannine writings, the noun zwh/ (“life”) virtually always refers to the Divine/eternal life, possessed by God, which is given to believers in Christ. In a number of passages (cf. Jn 5:24; 8:51-52; 1 Jn 3:14), qa/nato$ (“death”) has a comparable meaning—viz., the eternal death that comes to the wicked (unbelievers) in the Judgment. As I mentioned previously, the immediate context of vv. 11-13, referring to eternal life, strongly suggests that “life” and “death”, respectively, in vv. 16-17 should be understood in a similar light.

But, if so, what does it mean for God to “give life” to the sinning believer (“and He will give life to him”)? Do not believers already possess eternal life, through the Spirit, in union with the Son (Jesus) and God the Father? There are several ways that the phrase can be explained.

The first option is to understanding giving eternal life here in terms of preserving it. Through forgiveness of sin, and the communication of the cleansing (and life-giving) power of Jesus’ death (“blood,” cf. 1:7ff; Jn 6:51-58), the believer is protected from the loss of life that would otherwise result from sin. The idea expressed by the author in v. 18 (to be discussed) tends to confirm this line of interpretation.

A second explanation is that God restores life to the sinning believer. According to this interpretation, there is a genuine (but temporary) loss of life when a believer sins. However, the sin does not lead to ultimate (eternal) death (“not toward death”); rather, through forgiveness and the cleansing power of Jesus’ “blood” (1:7), communicated by the Spirit, the believer is restored to the fullness of life. For more on this line of interpretation, cf. the discussion at the end of this note.

A third option, which may be viewed as a variation of the first option (above), holds that forgiveness of sin is a component of the (eternal) life that God gives to the believer. That is, the regular process of confession and forgiveness is part of the dynamic of God giving life to the believer. In other words, the gift of life is not a one-time event, occurring only at the point when the believer comes to trust in Jesus; rather, it represents an ongoing process, just as biological life is given continually to a human being.

There is merit to each of these lines of interpretation, with sound arguments to be made on behalf of each. Let us see if, through a continuation of our study on vv. 16-19, it is possible to narrow the choice.

There are two main aspects of vv. 16-17 which still need to be discussed; this will be done in the next daily note.

*     *     *     *     *

The apparent contradiction in the author’s statements (here, in vv. 16a and 18), to the effect that believers both do and do not sin, have confounded commentators for centuries. One alternative solution that I have proposed involves the specific idea of the believer abiding in God (and God in the believer), utilizing the verb me/nw (“remain”) in its distinctive Johannine theological sense; the verb occurs 24 times in 1 John, in 2:6, 10, 14, 17, 19, 24, 27-28; 3:6, 9, 14-15, 17, 24; 4:12-13, 15-16.

The proposed solution is as follows: As long as the believer “remains” in God, he/she is unable to sin; only when, through neglect, one falls out of a state of abiding (“remaining”) in God, does one become prone to committing sin (but not the sin that is “toward death”). Through confession and forgiveness, the condition of abiding in God (and God in the believer) is restored, and the believer once again “remains” in God.

I find this to be an attractive solution, and one that is fully rooted in the Johannine theological idiom. However, it is not without several serious problems; these will be discussed in the upcoming notes, as we consider the best way to resolve the apparent contradiction in the author’s statements regarding sin and the believer.

July 6: 1 John 5:16-19 (2)

1 John 5:16-17

Having examined 5:16-19 in its immediate and broader context within 1 John (cf. the previous note), I will now turn to discuss verses 16-17 in detail.

“If any(one) should see his brother sinning (the) sin (that is) not toward death, he shall ask and (then God) will give life to him, to (the one)s sinning not toward death. There is a sin (that is) toward death, (and) I do not say that you should make a request about that.” (v. 16)

Three times in this verse (and again in v. 17), the author uses the expression “sin (that is) toward death [pro\$ qa/naton].” He apparently distinguishes between such sin and all other sin. He specifically instructs his readers that they should not pray to God on behalf of someone who is sinning the sin that is “toward death”. The author clearly has something quite distinctive in mind by this expression, but its meaning is largely lost for readers today. This has led to considerable discussion and speculation among commentators and theologians.

It is best to begin with the immediate context (vv. 14-15), which relates to the idea of believers praying to God, making requests (vbs ai)te/w and e)rwta/w in v. 16) on behalf of other believers, other members of the Community. The situation involves a believer doing something that can be seen (i.e., observed) and recognized (as sin) by another believer. This does not include ‘hidden’ sins of the heart—impure thoughts and desires—but only actions which can be observed (including things that are heard, with speech understood as an act). Members of the Community thus should pray for such believers, asking that God will lead them to repentance and forgive their sin (cf. 1:7-2:2, 12).

But what of the specific expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton)? I believe that this is best explained as traditional language that has been adapted to a Christian (and Johannine) context. It is probably derived, primarily, from the ancient Torah regulations, within which we find the principle distinguishing between unintentional and deliberate sin—see esp. the instruction in Leviticus 4  and Numbers 15:22-31. The guilt and impurity from unintentional sins can be removed through the sacrificial ritual; however, in the case of willful and deliberate sins, the ritual does not apply, and the sinner shall be “cut off” from his people (Num 15:30-31, etc).

The use of the verb tr^K* (“cut [off]”) in these regulations has been variously explained, either as either banishment or death (whether by the hand of the Community or Divine intervention). Cf. the discussion by J. Milgrom in Excursus 36 (pp. 405-8) of his JPS Torah Commentary (on Numbers). The Community of the Qumran texts applied this same principle: those guilty of deliberate sin were banished from the Community (cf. 1QS 8:21-9:2). In Jubilees 21:22 the specific expression “sin unto death” is used, in reference to an Israelite who followed the sinful (and idolatrous) ways of the surrounding peoples, with the ultimate result that the sinner’s “name and seed” would perish from the earth. Cf. Brown, p. 617.

It is unlikely, however, that physical death is primarily in view here. Elsewhere in the Johannine writings, the noun qa/nato$ (“death”) tends to connote the eternal death that comes to a person in the Judgment, to be contrasted with the eternal life (zwh/) that comes to the believer in Christ (who passes safely through the Judgment)—Jn 5:24; 8:51-52; 1 Jn 3:14; this is the implication even in Jn 5:24 and 11:4ff, where physical death is the primary point of reference. Indeed, the specific reference to eternal life in the preceding vv. 11-13, suggests strongly that, similarly, eternal death (in the Judgment) is intended here in vv. 16ff. This is most important for an understanding of what the author means by the expression “sin (that is) toward death” —it is sin that leads toward (and results in) eternal death from God’s (final) Judgment.

In this regard, the use of the word zwh/, here in the context of v. 16, is significant. The particular statement is (literally): “he shall ask, and he will give life to him”. The ambiguity of pronoun and verbal subject is rather typical of Johannine style, but it can make interpretation of the author’s statements difficult at times. The best explanation is that three different persons are involved:

he [i.e. the one praying] shall ask, and He [i.e. God] will give life to him [i.e. the one sinning]”

But what does it mean for God to give life to the sinning believer, when the noun “life” (zwh/) virtually always means Divine/eternal life in the Johannine writings? Does not the true believer already possess eternal life (vv. 11-12, 13)? This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 30 (1982).
Those marked “Milgrom” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers rbdmb, commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Jewish Publication Society: 1990).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 49 (Part 2)

Psalm 49, continued

As noted in last week’s study, this Psalm (following the introduction in vv. 2-5 [1-4]) can be divided into three sections or stanzas:

    • Section 1: The fate of those who trust in riches (vv. 6-10 [5-9])
    • Section 2: The same fate (of death and the grave) awaits for all people (vv. 11-14 [10-13])
    • Bridge—An expression of trust that God will deliver the Psalmist from death (vv. 15-16 [14-15])
    • Section 3: The foolishness of trusting in riches is emphasized (vv. 17-21 [16-20])

We continue this week with sections 2  and 3, which develop the basic message and Wisdom-themes from the first section.

Section/Stanza 2: Vv. 11-14 [10-13]

Verse 11 [10]

“For one sees wise men, (that even) they die,
(then) gaze (at the) fool and brute, (how) they perish,
and leave off their strength for (those) coming after.”

This section begins with an irregular tricolon that is also difficult textually. There is some question, for example, as to the subject of the first two lines. I have translated them in accordance with Wisdom-tradition, as referring to what any person (including the reader/hearer) can observe. However, it is possible to read the line with God (YHWH) as the subject:

“For He looks (at) the wise (and) they die,
He gazes (at) fool and brute (and) they perish”

In my view, the parallelism here is not synonymous, but synthetic, building upon the statement in the first line: viz., if one sees that even the wise die, then realize all the more how the fool perishes! The foolish (lit. thick/dullish) person (lys!K=) is paired with the “brutish” (ru^B^) person, together forming a contrastive parallel with “wise men” (<ym!k*j&); however, for a different understanding of rub here, cf. Dahood, p. 298.

I tentatively follow Dahood in his reading of djy in the second line as an imperfect verbal form (cp. in Prov 27:17) of a (separate) root hd*j* (III), meaning “look (at), gaze”. This forms a suitable parallel with the verb ha*r* in the first line. According to this line of interpretation, there is something of an imperatival or jussive force to the verb here (“look [then]…”).

The main point of the verse is that all people—wise and foolish alike—die, and end up leaving all their wealth and power behind on earth, to be used by others (“[those] coming after”).

Verse 12 [11]

“Burial-plots (are) their houses into (the) distant (future),
their dwelling-places for cycle and cycle (to come),
(though) they called their names over their lands.”

A similar point is being made in v. 12 [11], particularly with regard to those who are wealthy on earth. They invoke their name over their property, indicating that the land belongs to them, but, in the end, only their grave truly belongs to them as their home. With a number of commentators (e.g., Kraus, p. 479), I follow the Greek versions in reading <yr!b*q= (“burial-sites, graves”) for MT <B*r=q! (“within them”), which makes relatively little sense in context. Unfortunately, the Qumran manuscript (4QPsc), which might have confirmed this reading, is broken at this point.

Verse 13 [12]

“Indeed, man does not (even) stay the night in a (house of) splendor,
(but) being like (the) beasts, (just) ceases (to exist).”

The same point from the previous verse is made even more forcefully here with this contrastive couplet. The initial w-conjunction should be understood in the sense of “indeed,…”. The noun rq^y+ (“value, [something] valuable, splendor, honor”) here refers specifically to a splendid house, as indicated by the references cited by Dahood (p. 299), where he notes particularly the funerary context of the expression. As in life, the person’s wealth in death (i.e., a splendid funerary monument) is of little worth, since he/she simply “ceases” (vb hm*D* II) to exist on earth, just like all other animals.

The Qumran MS 4QPsc, along with the LXX, reads /yby (“discern, understand”) instead of /yly (“spend the night”), perhaps under the influence of the similar wording in v. 21 [20] (cf. below), where the verb /yB! is used.

Verse 14 [13]

This is the path of (the) foolishness (that waits) for them,
and what follows for th(ose) who delight in their mouth!”

The “path” (Er#D#) those are walking, who foolishly trust in worldly riches, and what waits for them at the end of their life (rj^a^, “[what] follows, [what] comes after”), is simply death and the grave. The final phrase, “(those) who delight in their mouth”, plays on the root meaning of ls#K#, as that which is “thick, fat, plump”, alluding to the richness and good food that is available for those who have wealth, and thus making a clear connection between riches and folly. The trust in riches includes living a life full of comfort and enjoyment of good food, etc.

Bridge: Verses 15-16 [14-15]

“Like a flock (of sheep) they are set for She’ol,
Death will give them pasture;
they go down straight in (his throat) like cattle,
their form being consumed—
She’ol (is the) exalted place for them.
Yet (the) Mightiest will ransom my soul,
from the hand of She’ol He will take me!”

These lines are most difficult, and may well be corrupt at one or more points. The fragmentary nature of the two Qumran manuscripts offers relatively little help, and reconstructions are inherently problematic. For lack of any better solution, I have generally followed the MT. The reading reflected by the translation above yields a fairly clear pair of couplets for v. 15 [14], followed by a single summarizing line, and then climaxing with the couplet in v. 16 [15].

The imagery seems to be that of herd animals (cf. verse 13[12]b), sheep and cattle, being led down into the realm of Death (She’ol). In this regard, Death functions like a shepherd, guiding them to pasture in his realm. The second couplet uses more graphic images, playing on the traditional idea of Death as a being with a ravenous appetite (and a massive mouth/throat) who devours all things. Like cattle descending along the hillside down into the valley, so people go down into the ‘throat’ of She’ol, where they are consumed.

It is just here that the text is most problematic. With Dahood (p. 300), I tentatively read <yr!v*m@B= for MT <yr!v*y+ <B*. It would then be read in an adverbial sense, something like “go down with smoothness (into his throat)” (cp. <yr!v*ym@l= in Song 7:10[9]). Along with this, rqbl would be read rq*b*l= (“like a calf, like cattle”) instead of MT rq#B)l^ (“at the morning”). The short line that follows (assuming nothing has dropped out) is perhaps even more obscure: “their form being consumed[?]”.

The remainder of vv. 15-16, fortunately, is rather more clear. Sheol is is declared to the “exalted place” (lWbz+m!) for human beings, obviously using a bit of grim irony; it is the only ‘house of splendor’ that is left for the wealthy after they are dead. In spite of all this, the Psalmist expresses the hope that YHWH will “ransom” (vb hd*P*) his soul from this fate, snatching him “from the hand” (dY~m!) of Death. In context, this suggests a belief that the soul of the righteous will meet a different fate from all other human beings: while other people simply cease to exist (their bodies being in the grave), the righteous will be taken by God to dwell with Him in a blessed heavenly afterlife.

Section/Stanza 3: Vv. 17-21 [16-20]

Verses 17-18 [16-17]

“You should not fear when a man grows rich,
when the weight of his house increases;
for he shall not take (anything) in his death,
all his weight shall not go down after him.”

The final section returns to a calmer proverbial tone with these couplets, restating the same basic message. Dahood (p. 302), gives a slightly different reading for the first line, reading ar@T@ (from ha*r*, “look, see”) rather than ar*yT! (from ary, “fear, be afraid”). The result is at least as appropriate in context: “You should not look (with envy)…”. The “weight” (dobK*) of a person’s property and possessions refers to both its value and its splendor (as well as the honor it provides within society).

Verses 19-20 [18-19]

“For he blessed his (own) soul in his life,
and (though) they throw you (praise) when you bring good to yourself,
he shall come unto (the) circle of his fathers,
to (the) end, (where) they shall not see light.”

The apparent blessings and honor accorded to the wealthy person, both by society and in his own estimation, are contrasted with the fate of death and the grave. In the end, such a person simply dwells in the darkness of the grave, along with his ancestors (“[the] circle [roD] of his fathers”)—the idea of a family/community burial site is thus implied.

Verse 21 [20]

“Man (is) in (his house of) splendor and does not discern (this),
(but) is like (the) beasts (who) cease (to exist).”

This closing couplet resembles that in v. 13 [12] (above), repeating the idea of man residing in a “(house of) splendor” (rq*y+). In the earlier couplet, the emphasis was on the fact that human beings ultimately have no such splendid house—the only dwelling that truly belongs to them is the grave. In that context, the verb /yl! (/Wl) was used, meaning “spend the night”, though the LXX and at least one Qumran MS had /yB! (“discern, understand”) just as here in v. 21. If the distinction in the MT is correct, however, then there is some wordplay involved, playing on the similarity of sound (and rhythm) between /yl! and /yB!.

The point of emphasis here at the close of the section is different: human beings, during their lifetimes, do indeed dwell in many “splendid houses”, but all the while, in their riches, they are foolish and do not understand the truth of the matter. Death will render all of their wealth to be of little value, compared to the fate of their soul. Only for the righteous, those who, in their wisdom, are faithful and devoted to YHWH (and His Instruction), is there any hope that the soul will live on in a real “house of splendor”. The hope of the righteous was expressed in the bridge verses 15-16 (cf. above)—that YHWH will rescue them out of the grasp of death, to dwell together with Him in a blessed afterlife.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).
Those 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).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 49 (Part 1)

Psalm 49

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsc (vv. 1-17 [1-16]); 4QPsj (vv. 6?, 9-12, 15, 17? [5?, 8-11, 14, 16?])

There is a shift in this Psalm to a Wisdom emphasis. In the prior Psalms of the Elohist Psalter, a royal theology dominated, focusing on praise of YHWH as King over the universe. In the ‘Elohist’ Psalms that we have examined thus far, the influence of Wisdom tradition has been slight; however, overall such traditions exerted a considerable influence on the Psalms, a point noted and demonstrated numerous times in these studies. Even so, very few Psalms have such a strong and overt Wisdom orientation.

Psalm 49 is a Wisdom poem in three sections, or stanzas, with an introduction (vv. 2-5 [1-4]) and a short bridge section (vv. 15-16 [14-15]) between the second and third stanzas. The particular wisdom-theme here emphasizes the folly of trusting in earthly riches, since the same fate (death and the grave) ultimately will befall all people, rich and poor alike—in which case such riches are essentially meaningless. The thematic development may be outlined as follows:

    • Section 1: The fate of those who trust in riches (vv. 6-10 [5-9])
    • Section 2: The same fate (of death and the grave) awaits for all people (vv. 11-14 [10-13])
    • Bridge—An expression of trust that God will deliver the Psalmist from death (vv. 15-16 [14-15])
    • Section 3: The foolishness of trusting in riches is emphasized (vv. 17-21 [16-20])

The highly didactic character of this Psalm, along with its relative length, would seem to cause certain problems for regular performance and preservation of the work. In detail, there are numerous difficulties in terms of the text, structure, and meter. Generally a 3-beat (3+3) couplet format is used, but there are notable irregularities which could be an indication of textual corruption.

The musical direction in the superscription is quite brief, using the typical indicator the work as a musical composition (romz+m!). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to the study on Psalm 42/43.

Introduction (vv. 2-5 [1-4])

Verses 2-3 [1-2]

“Hear this, all (you) peoples (on earth),
and give ear, all dwellers of (this) fleeting (world),
even sons of man(kind) (and) sons of a man,
as one (together)—rich and poor.”

The parallelistic opening couplet, with its traditional idiom, “Hear…give ear…” (cf. Deut 32:1; Isa 1:10), is typical of Wisdom literature, calling on people to give heed to the voice of Wisdom. As is common in such literature, the teaching is intended for all of humankind, not just the people of Israel. Parallel with <yM!u^h*-lK* (“all the peoples”) is the expression dl#j* yb@v=y), which is somewhat difficult to render into English. The rather rare noun dl#j# seems to refer to the duration of life—that is, life on earth, esp. human life—emphasizing, in a Wisdom-setting, how short and fleeting it can be. The expression means something like “dwellers in (this) fleeting (life)” or “dwellers of (this) fleeting (world)”.

Also difficult is the first line of the second couplet; literally it reads: “even sons of man, even sons of a man”, using the nearly synonymous terms <d*a* and vya!. Here, the first noun means “man(kind), humankind”, while the second “a (particular) man”. The comparison seems to be between “sons of (ordinary) men” and “sons of a (prominent) man”, parallel with the contrast between “rich and poor” in the second line.

Verses 4-5 [3-4]

“My mouth shall speak (word)s of wisdom
(the) murmur of my heart (word)s of discernment;
I will bend my ear to (an) illustration,
(and) breathe out (the) riddle on (my) harp.”

Here we clearly see that wisdom (hm*k=j*, plur. tomk=j*) is the focus of the Psalm. Parallel with the Psalmist’s mouth speaking words of wisdom is his heart murmuring things with discernment (/WbT*). The Hebrew twgj should perhaps be read as a verbal noun (infinitive), i.e., togh* instead of MT tWgh* (cf. Dahood, p. 297).

Even as the Psalmist hears the message of Wisdom, so he, being thus inspired, gives it musical expression on the harp—i.e., in the form of a musical composition (romz+m!), or Psalm. The noun lv*m* is often translated “proverb”, but more properly refers to a figurative illustration or example by which a comparison is made or a likeness is indicated. Another colorful means by which wisdom is expressed is the hd*yj!, an enigmatic saying (lit. something ‘covered over’), perhaps best summarized as a “riddle” or “puzzle”. Near Eastern and Old Testament Wisdom literature is replete with such illustrations and riddles, but here the terms are simply meant to summarize the teaching of Wisdom as a whole.

I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 297) in reading jT^p=a# as a reflexive (hitpael or –t– infixed stem) form of the verb jWP (“breathe, blow”). The more customary explanation is as a form of the verb jt^P* (“open”): “I will open (up the) riddle on my harp”.

Section/Stanza 1: Vv. 6-10 [5-9]

Verses 6-7 [5-6]

“For what [i.e. why] should I fear (the) days of evil,
(when the) crookedness of heel-grabbers surrounds me,
(the one)s taking refuge upon their strength,
(who) boast in (the) abundance of their riches?”

This is another 3-beat (3+3) couplet, the meter of which is obscured somewhat by the glossed translation. The verb bq^u* is denominative from the noun bq@u* (“heel”), and literally means “grab/grasp the heel”, a Semitic idiom that refers to someone acting deceitfully, a point here confirmed by the use of the noun /ou* (“crookedness”). The “days of evil” are thus characterized by people at large acting wickedly and deceitfully.

In particular, these deceitful persons are those who trust in their earthly power and wealth, as indicated in the second couplet here. The verb jf^B*, used frequently in the Psalms, fundamentally refers to a person “seeking protection/refuge” in someone (or something). What the wicked “take refuge” in is their worldly strength (ly]j^) and wealth (rv#u)). They rely on earthly power and riches, and trust in that, rather than in YHWH—all the more so when there is a great “abundance” of riches involved.

Verse 8 [7]

“A man (surely) cannot give ransom to ransom a brother,
cannot give to (the) Mightiest (to) wipe out his (debt).”

The reason why it is foolish to trust in earthly wealth for protection and security is that such riches are of no use in ransoming a soul that is in debt to God. The verb hd*P* refers to paying a ransom price that redeems a person out of debt (and servitude, etc). The root rpk here has a similar meaning—viz., of wiping out or erasing a debt. The allusion in this couplet is to the penalty of death (and the grave) that awaits for the wicked. No amount of earthly wealth or power can keep a person from meeting this fate.

The doubling syntax that is used here, i.e., use of a cognate infinitive with a finite verb (of the same root), is meant to intensify the action, or the negative aspect of a prohibition, etc. Here the sense is, “a man certainly cannot pay the ransom (for) a brother”; however, in my translation above I have rendered both verb forms together in a more literal fashion.

Verses 9-10 [8-9]

“And heavy (indeed) is (the) ransom for their soul,
when it ceases into (the) distant (future),
and would yet live (on) unto glory,
and should not see the (Pit of) Destruction!”

The pair of couplets in vv. 9-10 builds upon the statement in the previous verse, emphasizing that it is indeed a very high payment (lit. a heavy weight [i.e. amount] of silver, etc) that would be required to ransom a soul, when what is involved is reversing its ultimate fate of death—to keep it from ceasing to exist (vb ld^j*) into the distant future (<l*ou).

The only way to avoid such a fate is somehow to “live (on) unto glory [jx^n#]”, which is something that only a precious few, according to Israelite tradition, have experienced (e.g., Enoch, Elijah), but which remains a hope for the righteous, so expressed at various points in the Old Testament (including the Psalms). However, for nearly all of humankind—and certainly for the wicked—their end is death and the grave. Here the familiar idiom of seeing death occurs, with death itself vividly described under the figure of “the (pit) of destruction” (tjV*h^).

Brief mention should be made of the variant reading for v. 9 [8] in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsj. Instead of the characters ldjw the reading is apparently wljw. The MT is itself a bit obscure; I understand ld^j*w+ (“and he/it ceases”), in context, as “their soul ceases (to exist)…”. The meaning of the Qumran variant is even less clear: “his weakness/illness[?] (lasts[?]) into the distant (future)”. The occurrence of the textual variation, along with the irregular meter (3+2) of the couplet, raises the possibility that the text here is corrupt and that something may have dropped out.

Apart from this textual question in v. 9, overall the sense of these couplets is clear enough. The point being emphasized is, that all of the wealth and power in the world is unable to keep a person from ultimately experiencing death and the oblivion of the grave. This is a familiar point of emphasis in Near Eastern Wisdom-tradition and it takes center stage here in the Psalm. It will be developed in the second and third sections, which we will examine in next week’s study.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 16 (1965).

April 22: John 11:26a

John 11:26a

Today we will be looking at the second half of Jesus’ statement in Jn 11:25b-26a (the first half was discussed in the prior note). Here again is the statement:

“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live; and every (one) living and trusting in me shall (certainly) not die away into the Age”

As I discussed, the first half refers to the promise of life to the believer who should happen to die physically (as in the case of Lazarus). This “life” (zwh=) reflects both the physical reality of resurrection, usually understood as occurring at the end-time (v. 24), and the realization of the future (eternal) life. Both aspects should be recognized in the verb zh/setai (“he will live“). Now let us consider the second half in v. 26a:

kai\ pa=$ o( zw=n kai\ pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ou) mh/ a)poqa/nh| ei)$ to\n ai)w=na
“and every (one) living and trusting in me will (certainly) not die away into the Age”

Even more so than in v. 25b, here there is a profound play on two meanings of the verb za/w, used as a qualifying participle, “the (one) living [zw=n]”:

    1. “living” in the ordinary sense of one who is still alive (physically)
    2. “living” in the sense of one who shares in eternal life (in the present)

The second aspect is indicated by the parallel use of the participles zw=n (“living”) and pisteu/wn (“trusting”). On the surface, one could understand this simply as a believer who is (still) alive; however, the use of the verb za/w (along with the related noun zwh=) in the Gospel of John strongly indicates that the divine/eternal life, possessed by God the Father and the Son, is meant. The one who trusts (believes) in Jesus shares in this life, in a fundamental sense. This promise of life is expressed by the adjective pa=$ (“all, every”)—every one who trusts will experience (eternal) life.

Let us consider for a moment the parallel established in vv. 25b-26a:

    • (if) he should die away, he will live
    • the one living…will not die away

Conceptually, I would outline the relationship between these phrases as follows:

    • die away (physical death)
      —will live (resurrection / new life)
      ——believer is alive
      —living (experiencing eternal life)
    • will not die away (final death)

The final phrase “he will not die away into the Age” requires a bit more discussion. It involves the expression “into the Age” (ei)$ to\n ai)w=na) which is related to “the life of the Age” ([h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh=). The idea of dying “into the Age (to Come)” refers to the eschatological sense of a final or “second” death which extends into the distant (everlasting) future. This is tied to the concept of the end-time Judgment by God on humankind. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away”) is used in a similar sense (and context) in Jn 8:21, 24, where we find the specific expression of dying in one’s sins. The person who dies without trusting in Jesus will remain under the anger of God and will experience the Judgment which leads to final death (cf. 3:19, 36, etc). This is expressed clearly in 5:24, where it is said of the believer that “he does not come into (the) judgment”. Jesus’ statement in this verse, which serves as the climax of his exposition in vv. 19-24, is worth quoting here in full:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, that the (one) hearing my word and trusting in the (One) sending me holds life of the age [i.e. eternal life], and he does not come into (the) Judgment, but he has stepped (over) out of death (and) into life”

This is one of the best examples in the Gospel of “realized” eschatology. The one hearing and trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father through Jesus) holds eternal life—he/she does not merely come to possess it or enter it at the end-time, but holds it already now, in the present. The language in v. 24b is clearly eschatological, and yet it expresses a different reality. The present tense of ou)k e&rxetai (“he does not come”) is parallel to e&xei (“he holds”)—i.e., just as the believer already holds eternal life in the present, so he/she also is already guaranteed (now in the present) not to come into the Judgment. This is expressed in a different way by the perfect form of the verb metabai/nw, a verb which can be difficult to translate in English. Literally it means something like “step with(in)”, usually indicating a change of place—i.e., “step across, step over”. Here in verse 24, the closing phrase is “he has stepped over/across out of death (and) into life”. Quite often the perfect form (here metabe/bhken) signifies a past action or condition which continues into the present. In the context of Jesus’ statement this is a powerful declaration that the one who trusts has already stepped into life—that is, has already experienced the resurrection and possesses the eternal life normally associated with the future (end-time) state of the righteous.

April 21: John 11:25b

John 11:25

Jesus’ statement in John 11:25b-26a follows the “I Am” saying in v. 25a—”I am the standing up (again) [i.e. resurrection] and the life“, which I discussed in the previous daily note. Verse 25b-26a is a two-fold statement which explains this saying; it also serves to correct Martha’s misunderstanding (v. 24), according to the Johannine discourse-format. Her misunderstanding was addressed first in the “I Am” saying, shifting the focus from the end-time resurrection of the dead to Jesus’ own person, in the present. The exposition continues in vv. 25b-26a:

“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live; and every one living and trusting in me shall (certainly) not die away into the Age”

There is a poetic parallelism to this statement:

    • the one trusting—dies—will live (again)
    • every one living—trusting—will not die

Today we will be looking at the first part of this statement (in verse 25b):

o( pisteu/wn ei)$ e)me\ ka*n a)poqa/nh| zh/setai
“the (one) trusting in me, even (if) he should die away, he will live”

There is some question as to the precise meaning of living and dying, life and death, in this verse. Two main possibilities have been recognized:

    • It refers to physical death and resurrection
    • It refers to spiritual death and new (eternal) life

Because the words zwh= and za/w (“life”, “live”) in the Gospel of John usually refer to something akin to “eternal life”, many commentators assume the latter interpretation above. However, I believe that this is incorrect. The idea of a person being dead “spiritually”, while a popular concept and expression in modern Christianity, is hard to find in the New Testament. There is certainly precious little evidence for it in the Gospel of John. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away”) occurs 28 times in John, and always, it would seem, in reference to the ordinary (physical) death of a human being. The same is true of the adjective nekro/$ (“dead”), used substantively as a collective (“the dead”, i.e. people who have died). Therefore we can fairly assume that a)poqnh/skw has the same sense here in vv. 25-26. The context is clearly that of the resurrection from the dead (to be illustrated in the case of Lazarus).

However, it is important to understand the conceptual background of “life” and “death/dying” in the Gospel. The fundamental emphasis is eschatological. This is confirmed by the fact that the word “life” (zwh=) is regularly used in the expression “(the) life of the Age” ([h(] ai)w/nio$ zwh=), typically translated in English as “eternal life”. That customary translation, however, obscures the original sense of the expression, which refers to the Age to Come. In ancient thought, shared by Israelites and Jews, the future age represents a period of blessedness, in which the righteous will share in the heavenly (divine) life. Often this was understood in a realistic sense, of a future time (and/or condition) established on earth, expressed in Jewish thought as the “Kingdom of God”. Others came to view the idea in a more symbolic sense, reflecting the divine/eternal life that the righteous would experience with God in heaven.

Perhaps the earliest occurrence of the expression corresponding to ai)w/nio$ zwh= is in Daniel 12:2, where the resurrection of the righteous is in view. In Hebrew it is <l*ou yY@j^ (µayy¢ ±ôl¹m), where the word <l*ou essentially refers to something distant—i.e. that of the distant past or future, often in the sense of time stretching out into the far distant (“everlasting”) future. The temporal aspect of life without end is clearly expressed in Jewish writings such as the Qumran Community Rule [1QS] 4:7 and the Damascus Document [CD] 3:20. By the 1st century A.D., this aspect was supplemented by the idea of “eternal life” in a qualitative sense, whereby the “Age to Come” had a character completely different from the current Age (“this Age”). While the expression “life of the Age” in John retains something of the temporal background, the overall meaning has shifted to the qualitative—it reflects the life of God the Father (and the Son) in which the righteous (believers) will come to share. In this sense, eternal does not refer to duration, but to its Divine character.

The traditional contrast between “this Age” and “the Age to Come” has also been reinterpreted within the Gospel to reflect a different sort of dualism—the world (o( ko/smo$) vs. God, the realm below vs. that which is above, etc. By the “world” we should understand ko/smo$ in its fundamental sense of order, that is, the current world-order, the arrangement of things and how they appear. In Johannine dualism, this world-order is governed by darkness, evil and sin, and is set precisely in contrast to the realm of God, characterized by light and truth. The presence of sin ultimately leads to (1) physical death, and (2) judgment by God (after death). Thus the ordinary human condition—that of mortal beings—ends in death, realized in these two aspects. After physical death, there is a kind of final or “second” death which is the fate of the wicked (cf. Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).

Let us now consider Jn 11:25b in light of this background. I would argue that “death” in Johannine thought and expression has nothing whatever to do with the Spirit, or to the “spirit” of humankind; it is entirely separate, belonging to “the World”—the realm of sin and darkness. Human beings are bound under the conditions of the sinful world-order (ko/smo$), and are destined to suffer both physical and final (eschatological) death. Jesus is referring to the first aspect: physical, mortal death.

“even (if) he should die away [a)poqa/nh|]…”

The subjunctive here indicates a conditional clause, i.e. if a person should die, if he/she happens to die, just as happened to Lazarus. The promise of the statement is, that if a person trusts in Jesus, and happens to die (physically), that person will live (zh/setai). In the immediate context, this last phrase would seem to refer to the future resurrection, as Martha assumed in v. 24. Yet Jesus is actually saying that the person will live again now. This must be understood on two levels:

    • In the context of the narrative, the impending resurrection of Lazarus
    • In the sense of what may be called a “realized” eschatology

By “realized” eschatology is meant the idea that believers in Christ experience the essential reality of the future life in the present. In other words, the resurrection and “life of the Age” (eternal life) will be experienced through the presence of Jesus in and with the believer. In the Gospel of John, as elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. the letters of Paul), this divine/eternal life is realized primarily through the abiding presence and work of the Spirit. There is no mention of the Spirit in the Lazarus episode, it has to be understood based on other passages in the Gospel. I will be dealing with the relationship between the Spirit and Life (cf. Jn 6:63) in a subsequent series of notes.

It is now time to proceed to the second part of Jesus’ statement, in v. 26a. This I will do in the next daily note.

April 16: John 11:21

For the days following Easter, I will be presenting a short series of notes on the Lazarus episode in the Gospel of John (11:1-44)—specifically, the dialogue between Martha and Jesus in verses 21-27. This exchange is similar in certain respects to the dialogue format used in the Discourses, as for example, in the scenes with Nicodemus (in chapter 3) and the Samaritan woman (in chapter 4).

John 11:21

The exchange between Martha and Jesus partially follows the pattern of Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in 3:1-10ff. Martha’s initial address—”Lord [Ku/rie]…”—is not all that different from how Nicodemus addresses Jesus (“Rabbi…” v. 2, cf. 20:16 etc), with an honorific title. The use of ku/rio$ (“lord”) may indicate a level of deeper relationship—i.e. of a disciple to his/her master—but it should not be understood here in its full Christological sense (cp. 20:28). The occurrence of the second Ku/rie (“Lord…”) from Martha in v. 27, however, may be intended to show a greater degree of awareness as to Jesus’ true identity, and so is set in parallel with the first address in v. 21, to bring out the comparison.

There are several points to note in Martha’s statement. First, she is giving emphasis on Jesus’ miracle-working ability. It is this which marks her understanding and appreciation of him, and corresponds with her desire to see her brother Lazarus healed of his illness. By all accounts, the working of healing miracles was the basis for much of Jesus’ fame and notoriety during his lifetime and the period of his ministry, as the Gospels (esp. the Synoptic narrative) make abundantly clear. In so far as Jesus was regarded as an Anointed (i.e. Messianic) figure during the (Galilean) ministry period, it was primarily as a miracle-working Prophet in the manner of Elijah, or the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. Nicodemus certainly recognized this as well:

“Rabbi, we see [i.e. know] that you have come from God (as) a teacher, for no one is able to do these signs which you do, if God were not with him” (3:2)

While not used exclusively of miracles, the word shmei=on (“sign”) tends to have this meaning in John, as in the rest of the New Testament.

Second, the first half of her statement focus on the physical presence of Jesus in order to work miracles: “Lord, if you were [i.e. had been] here…” This is similar to the request by the official in 4:46ff, who asked “that (Jesus) come down and cure his son” (v. 47). Clearly he, like Martha, believes that Jesus is capable of working such a cure; yet, Jesus’ response, somewhat surprisingly, suggests that this indicates a lack of faith: “If you do not see signs and wonders, (surely) you do not trust” (v. 48). In fact, the man’s son is cured from a distance, without requiring Jesus’ presence, but only the power and effect of his word (vv. 50ff). In terms of the theology (and Christology) of the Gospel of John, the presence of Jesus is important, as he is the incarnate Son who makes the Father known to his disciples (believers), and yet an equally important message is that true faith (trust) in Jesus ultimately is not based on the observance of physical events and phenomena (such as miracles), but on acceptance of the living, eternal word [lo/go$] which Jesus speaks, and which is present in his person.

Third, it is significant here that Martha frames the question of healing and life by a negative. She might have said, “if you were here, my brother would have lived,”, etc; but, instead, her statement is, “…my brother would not have died away [ou)k a*n a)pe/qanen]”. In other words, life is not-death. This introduces the important interplay between life and death which runs through the dialogue of vv. 21-27 and the remainder of the episode. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away, die off”) first appears in the Gospel of John in the earlier episode of the official’s son who is healed (4:47), occurs in a number of the discourses which follow (6:49-50, 58; 8:21, 24, 52-53). The motif of the Son’s life-giving creative power, which even gives life to the dead (i.e. resurrection), is central to the discourse in 5:19-29 as well as the Bread of Life discourse (6:35-58). In both passages, it is fundamentally Jesus’ word (or words, command, “voice”) which gives life to the dead. As the Gospel progresses, the positive aspect—of Jesus’ word being not only life-giving, but life itself—becomes a more dominant motif. This shift is manifest in the very dialogue between Jesus and Martha, as we shall see.