Of Whom the World was not Worthy
Sermons on the Lives and Works the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament
Author The Very Reverend Dr James Thornton
SERMON ONE: INTRODUCTION.
The English word “Church” is a translation of a Greek word, (“Ekklesia), which means an assembly that has been summoned, that is, a gathering of people who have come together because they have been called together by God. The Church has existed since Christ Jesus summoned His Apostles together, proclaimed His Church established, and sent the Holy Spirit upon this assembly of righteous men at Pentecost. Pentecost is the birthday, so to speak, of the Church, the New Testament Church.
However, if we understand the Church correctly as an assembly of men and women called together by God, we must acknowledge that, prior to Pentecost, the Church existed in another form, its Old Testament form. In that form it existed from the time God – more specifically, Christ God, since the God of the Old Testament is the pre-incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity (1) – made His covenant with the Holy Patriarch Abraham, approximately four thousand years ago, a time so remote from us that it is only seen dimly, a minute speck of light, as it were, on afar, far distant horizon. Yet, that was indeed the Church, this rudimentary Old Testament Church of the Holy Patriarch Abraham, this nascent God-bearing assembly. And, by the Grace of God, that tiny assembly was the spiritual progenitor of the two-thousand-year-long history of the religion of our spiritual forebears, the Hebrew people. It was the spiritual progenitor as well of another two thousand years of Orthodox Christianity, when the revelation of God’s truth, by God’s will, broke its tribal boundaries and opened the vista of heavenly salvation to all of the world. That four thousand year is a spiritual unity, a spiritual continuum, wherein God’s truth was gradually revealed, in accordance with men’s ability to understand that truth and bring it to bear on their lives.
Thus it is that the heroes and Saints of the Old Testament are without question our heroes and Saints, their struggles, their suffering, and their victories leading directly, albeit slowly, to Christ’s final revelation and to the evangelization of the world by Orthodox Christianity. To them we owe much; to them we are truly indebted. To learn more about these heroes and Saints of old thus enriches our spiritual lives and blesses us with wondrous examples of God-loving men, the stories of whose lives edify us and strengthen us in our own holy endeavours.
Saint Paul writes “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (2) The primary purpose of Holy Scripture, then, is to inspire us and guide us in improving our lives in accordance with God’s desire to save us and to grant eternal life to us. Old Testament history and the lives of the holy men of the Old Testament therefore serve us in our own quest for eternal life, and the study of sacred history thereby becomes an instrument of our salvation. As we are reminded by the scholars and theologians Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Bishop Auxentios of Photike, and as we should ourselves always remember, “history… is Divine, the content of which is the story of the manifestation of the Divine. (3)
For those reasons, we will in the coming chapters examine the Divine history of the lives of the principal Holy Patriarchs and Prophets, these Saints of the Old Testament, beginning with the life of the Holy Patriarch and Righteous Forefather Abraham and continuing through the last of the Holy Prophets, Saint John the Forerunner.
Let us begin today by defining some terminology. What, precisely, are Patriarchs and Prophets?
The word “patriarch,” in our English tongue, comes originally from a Greek, (“patriaches”). And that word, in turn, is derived from two Greek words, (“patria”), which signifies “family”, and which itself is derived from the Greek word for “father,” which is (“pater”), and (“-arches”) which comes from the Greek verb meaning “to rule.” So, a patriarch is fundamentally a word indicating the “ruler of a family.” In Christian ecclesiastical usage, the word “Patriarch” refers to the head of an autocephalus Orthodox Church, such as the Churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople. This title is quite proper when we recall that a Church, both at a national or regional level and at the parish level, is indeed a family of spiritual kinfolk, bound together, like blood kin, by love. However, the great Old Testament Patriarchs literally were the heads and rulers of their families, families that included all those related by blood and their spouses, and all those in service to the family, that is, the family’s servants or slaves.
In a general sense, we refer, when speaking of the Biblical text, to all of the heads of the families mentioned in Genesis, from Adam to Joseph, as Patriarchs. In a more precise sense, in speaking of the Holy Patriarchs, we refer to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, since, as the Biblical scholar Father John McKenzie writes, “the patriarchal narratives” of these men “form the prologue to the history of Israel.” (4)
And what is aprophet? The origins of that word too are telling and are also rooted in the Greek. (“pro”) means “before,” and (“phanai”) means “to speak.” Thus, a prophet is literally one who speaks before others of coming events, that is to say, of events before those events have taken place. It may also mean one who has been granted spiritual insight into the Divine Will and who communicates tat knowledge to others. Interesting and significant also is that the Hebrew word for “prophet,” (“navi”), means “one who is called – in other words, called by God to speak the truth. All throughout the history of the Old Testament, the Hebrew people – fallen men and women like ourselves – tended often to stray from the path that Almighty God had set forth for them. Many of the Holy Prophets of the Old Testament were therefore dispatched by God to speak the blunt truth, that unless the people repented, catastrophic loomed in the immediate future. Other foretold history in more long-range terms, prophesying the coming of Christ, the Saviour of mankind.
In learning of the Holy Patriarchs and Prophets, we lay the groundwork for apprehending the whole of salvation history. These men – the Patriarchs and Prophets – were of one mind each with the others, and of one mind with the great holy Church Fathers and the great Saints of Christian history. Their spiritual methodology was the same, a spiritual methodology that begins with humility. Their dedication to Godly virtue was the same. Saint John Chrysostomos writes:
…[H]e best knows himself, who accounts himself to be nothing. Thus we that both David and Abraham, when they were come up to the highest pitch of virtue, then best fulfilled this; and would call themselves, the one, “earth and ashes”, (5) and other, “a worm;” (6) and all the Saints too, like these, acknowledged their own wretchedness. (70
Saints of the Old and New Testaments alike cultivated the virtues of humility and contrition. They were, to use the words of saint John Chrysostomos once again, “instructed in the difference between God and us” (8) and they knew “how distant we are from the sky.” (9) That means simply that they grasped their own smallness standing before the infinite.
Let us strive to do the same. Let us cultivate the Godly virtues. As we hear the stories of these great men unfold, let us resolve to become, in the spiritual sense, like them. May they become our exemplers.
(1) “…[T]he Fathers maintain that Jesus Christ , before His birth from the Virgin Theotokos, in His uncreated Person of the Angel of God, Angel of the Great Council, the Lord of Glory, the Lord Sabaoth, is He who revealed God in Himself to the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament,” and “…the Old Testament is Christo-centric since Christ is the pre-incarnate Angel of the Lord and of the Great Council, the Lord of Glory, and the Lord Saboath in Whom the patriarchs and prophets see and hear God and through Whom they receive grace, succor, and forgiveness” (Father John Romanides, “Jesus Christ – The Life of the World,” Xenia Oecumenica, Vol, 39 , pp. 233-234).
(2) II St. Timothy 3:16-17.
(3) Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Bishop Auxentios of Photiki, The Roman West and the ‘Byzantine East (Etna, CA: Centre for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2002), p. 21.
(4) John L. McKenzie, S.J., ‘Dictionary of the Bible’ (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1965) p. 647.
(5) Genesis 18:27 (“dust and ashes” in the King James Version).
(6) Psalm 22:6 (21:7, LXX).
(7) “The Homlies of St John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” trans. Rev. Sir George Prevost, rev. Rev. M. B. Riddle, A Select Library of the Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, 1st Ser., Vol. X: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1983). P. 175.
SERMON TWO: HOLY PATRIARCH AND RIGHTEOUS FOREFATHER ABRAHAM (ABRAAM)
Today we begin a journey back through time, to a period nearly four thousand years ago, when God established, as we noted in last chapter, His first covenant; one could well say, when God established His Church in its Old Testament form. Let us hear the story.
The Book of Genesis, beginning at the eleventh chapter, (1) and ending in the twenty-fifth chapter, (2) tells the life of the Holy Patriarch Abraham. The Holy Patriarch was first known by the name of Abram, one of three sons born to a man named Terah. This family came from a place the Holy Scriptures call “Ur of the Chaldees.” Ur was located in Mesopotamia, the fertile region between and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now part of the country of Iraq(, and was the well-to-do capital of a small empire.
The Holy Patriarch was an upright man, a righteous man, and his family was very wealthy, making their living as nomadic live-stock herders. In time he grew even more wealthy. The Holy Bible relates that he “was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (3) and possessed at least 318 male servants born in his household. (4) So, he possessed substantial wealth, yet, as Saint John Chrysostomos writes, he was not covetous, but was generous to those in need. (5)
The existence of the city of Ur, incidentally , was confirmed by archeological excavations in the early twentieth century. At that site wonderfully worked treasures fashioned of gold, silver, bronze, and precious stones were uncovered, along with the ruins of grand temple buildings. So, the cynics who imagine that Biblical history is all myths has been proven wrong again. Lets add here a brief aside about the Holy Scriptures, especially the Old Testament.
The Holy Scriptures are indeed a record of actual events and people. The stories related in the Bible are not fictional, like the fantastic myths of the gods of pagan antiquity – the myths of Zeus, Jupiter, Wotan, or Thor. Yet, though Biblical stories are true stories, the primary objective of Holy Scriptures is not history, but theology: the understanding of God and the things of God and man, our duties towards our Creator, and so forth, Saint Justin of Celije instructs us: “The Bible is in a sense a biography of God in this world. In it the indescribable One has in a sense described Himself.” (6) Consequently, the primary reason for the study of the Holy Bible is not to make us historians, but to teach us God’s plan and how it relates to each of us, in other words, to lead us to eternal salvation. Thus, one can speculate until the end of time about the precise authenticity of the people, places, and events recorded in Holy Scripture. To do that. However, is to miss the point completely and not only to miss the point, but to do so at one’s spiritual peril.
The Book of Genesis tells us that the Saint’s father, Terah, took his family away from Ur of the Chaldees, and journeyed towards the land of Canaan. Not far into their travels, they stopped at a place called Haran, and there, Terah died.
God then spoke to the Holy Patriarch and commanded him to leave the land in which he lived, and his father’s household, and to journey to a land that God would reveal to him. God further promised that He would make of him a great nation, that He would bless him, and that He would make is name great. Thus it was that he encountered the true God and, from that day forward, maintained a close relationship with God.
Arriving in the land of Canaan, which today is part of the Israeli nation, the Saint immediately demonstrated his fidelity to God by building an altar for sacrificial offerings. And God told him that the land on which he stood would someday belong to his offspring: “Lift up thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it…” (7) And, as for the offspring, God told him, “Look now towards heaven, and tell [count] the stars, if thou be able to number them.” (8) As many as are the stars, that many would someday be his children. This God promised, although the Patriarch and his wife were childless and already quite old. Because he had faith in what God told him, God was assured of his righteousness.
When according to Genesis, he was ninety-nine years of age, the Lord appeared to him and established a covenant that was the beginning of the Old Testament form of the Church. From that day forth, God said: “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father to many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name be Abraham.” (9)
God promised that the land of Canaan would belong to the Holy Patriarch Abraham and his descendents be circumcised, as a token or symbol of their covenant and, moreover, as a sign of their separateness from the non-believing, pagan nations. God promised further that Saint Abraham and his wife, whose name God changed from Sarai to Sarah, would be blessed with a son, despite Saint Sarah’s barrenness and despite their advanced age. So it was that, in words of the Scripture, “Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age…. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.” (10)
Perhaps the most memorable of the encounters between God and the Holy Patriarch Abraham involved his son. One day, when Saint Isaac was a youth, God appeared to the Holy Patriarch and, to test his faith and trust, commanded him, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” (11) God was commanding that Saint Abraham offer that which he loved most of all, his only son, in sacrifice, as a burnt offering. He was to make an altar of stones and wood, to place his son upon it, to kill his son with a knife, and then set the wood ablaze, as he would normally do with a young lamb or some other animal.
The Holy Patriarch, doubtless inwardly stunned and horrified, nevertheless arose the next morning, gathered together two male servants and his son, collected the wood, and set off for the place designated. When they arrived, Saint Isaac spoke: “Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” that God would provide the lamb for sacrifice.
The altar was assembled and the young man was bound tight and laid upon the altar. The narrative then says:
And Abraham stretched forth his land, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. (13) God staying his hand, the Holy Patriarch then caught sight of a “ram caught in a thicket by his horns, “ 14 and offered the ram as his sacrifice to God, in place of his son.
The Holy Patriarch Abraham had learned of the true God through his visions of, and conversations with Him, and had come to place his absolute, unwavering love, faith, and trust in Him. If God commanded him to give up that which he loved most, his son, then, whatever the reason, God Himself knew best and would right everything in the end. That sacrifice of the Patriarch’s only son, and God’s intervention at the last moment to thwart death, is understood by the Holy Fathers to prefigure God giving His only Son, Jesus Christ, to be sacrificed, after which death was thwarted by Christ’s Resurrection on the third day.
We spoke before of a loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. The Holy Patriarch Abraham did so love God, remained faithful to him until the end of his life, at age 170 years, and was outwardly composed and obedient even at the moment he was about to thrust the dagger into his beloved son’s heart, so much did he trust God. Saint John Chrysostomos comments that, “This exploit outshineth thousands of diadems and crowns innumerable.” (15)
God rarely tests men and women to that extreme degree, and so it can with near certainty be said that none of us here will be tested so dramatically. Rather, He tests us in smaller ways, to try to elicit from us some measure of love, faith, and trust. At the most, He sometimes deigns that we deprived of loved ones, or of possessions, or of situations in life to which we have become accustomed. When He does test us, let us remember the testing of the Holy Patriarch Abraham, and let us follow God’s will as he did.
(1) Genesis 11:26.
(2) Ibid., 25:18.
(3) Ibid., 13:2.
(4) Ibid., 14:14.
(5) St. Chrysostom, “The Homilies on the Statues, to the People of Antioch,” trans. The Rev. W. R. Stephens, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, 1st Ser., Vol. ix: Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treaties; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statues (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 349.
(6) Archimandrite Justin Popovich, “How to Read the Bible and Why,” in A treasury of Serbian Orthodox Spirituality, Vol. 4: The Struggle for Faith and other writings of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich and Archimandrite Justin Popovich, trans. The Rt. Rev. Todor Mika and the Rev. Steven Scott (Grayslake, II,: The Serbian Orthodox Metropolitanate of New Gracanica, 1999), p. 74.
(7) Genesis 13:14-15.
(8) Ibid., 15:5.
(9) Ibid., 17:4-5.
(10) Ibid., 21:2-3.
(11) Ibid., 22:2.
(12) Ibid., 22:7.
(13) Ibid., 22:10-12.
(14) Ibid., 22:13.
(15) “Homilies of St. Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Second Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” trans. The Rev. J. Ashworth, rev. Talbot W. Chambers, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, 1st Ser., Vol. XII: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), p. 291.
SERMON THREE: HOLY PATRIARCH ISAAC (ISAAK)
You will remember from Sermon Two that to the Holy Patriarch Abraham and his wife was born a son, Saint Isaac. This miraculous event – miraculous since both parents were of quite advanced age – assured that God’s promise, that Saint Abraham would be the forefather of a vast multitude of descendants, as many as there were stars visible in the heavens, would be fulfilled.
We do not know a great deal about this second Holy Patriarch, much less then we know of his father. We can discern that his personality was different from that of his father. While the father was a formidable, decisive, and, one could say, autocratic figure, the son was much more mild and diffident in his ways. We are told that, eight days after his birth, he was circumcised, in accordance with God’s covenant. Many months later, on the day that he was weaned, “a great feast” (1) was held, since the child had survived his infancy, a likelihood not nearly so certain then as it is today.
He was a young man when the incident occurred of which we spoke last week, in which God required that he be offered in sacrifice by his father and then, at the last moment, intervened to spare his life. For the Patriarch Abraham’s obedience to God, the Saints have sung the highest praises. Yet, his son too garners similar praise. Apparently going to his death at the hand of his father, he too was obedient and neither fought God’s will nor protested what appeared to be his certain doom. Thus, in the words of Saint John Chrysostomos, we
Venerate the piety which, when he was both bound and laid on the wood, made him not be dismayed nor struggle nor accuse his father as mad; but he was even bound and lifted up and laid upon it, and endured all in silence, like a lamb, yea, rather like the universal Lord of all. For him he both imitated the gentleness, and kept to the type. (2)
In other words, like Christ Jesus, almost two millennia later, he went “as a lamb to the slaughter.” (3)
Elsewhere, Saint Chrysostomos again calls Saint Isaac “the type; for Isaac [like Christ] bare the wood.” (4) He refers to the fact that Saint Isaac helped to carry the wood up Mount Moriah for his own sacrifice, just as Christ carried the Cross up Golgotha. Saint Ambrose of Milan writes similarly, saying, “Isaac carried the wood for himself, Christ carried the yoke of His Cross.” (5) By “type” is meant that the Saint in some way stood as a symbol of Christ, that he represented a Christlike quality in some aspect of his before the time of Christ.
When the Holy Patriarch Isaac was thirty-six years of age, his mother, Saint Sarah, reposed, at age one hundred and twenty-seven, and was buried solemnly in the cave of Machpelah. Four years later, Saint Isaac married Rebecca who was his kin from Mesopotamia. Saint Abraham had taken great pains to assure that his son did not marry a woman of the nearby pagan tribes, but one of his own. And, some time after, the Holy Patriarch Abraham “died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years” (6) and was buried also at the cave of Machpelah.
Years passed, and Rebecca remained without children, despite God’s promises. It was feared that she might be barren. However, the two remained trusting and patient, praying constantly to God. after much prayer, Rebecca conceived and gave birth to twins, Esau, born first, and Jacob, born immediately afterwards, who was, Holy Scripture say holding fast to the firstborn heel. (7) Holy Scripture relates that, during her pregnancy, Rebecca was told by God that her sons would be very different one from the other, and that the elder would someday serve the younger, (8) a curious thing since it was normally always the younger who submitted to and served the elder.
In time, Esau, the firstborn, came to be Saint Isaac’s favourite, while the younger san was most favoured by his mother. Esau grew to be a rather undisciplined young man, marrying a Hittite women, to the immense disappointment of his father and mother, and much preferring the adventurous life of the huntsman to the more tranquil, domesticated, tedious life of the herdsman. He was partial to fine clothes and to all the things that his position as elder son brought him, except the yoke of responsibility. In short, he was unsuited to the position to which he had been born, to assume someday the mantle as patriarchal leader of the growing clan, while his brother was fitted to the role perfectly.
The family prospered with growing flocks and herds and great numbers of servants. So prosperous did they become that their Philistine neighbours began to envy them, and for that reason committed various acts of petty abuse against them, such as seizing or sabotaging their wells. Saint Isaac quietly gave way before this ill treatment, preferring to move away from his persecutors rather than to confront them. There again, we see an example of his meekness, so beloved by the Lord.
When the Patriarch Isaac had reached old age, and had become blind, the time arrived for him to bless his eldest son, and thereby to confer upon him all of the rights and honours of the succession, as the patriarchal ruler of the family and heir to God’s promises. Esau was commanded by his father to appear before him to receive the blessing, but to do so only after he had prepared his father certain foods which he especially liked. Esau obediently went off to hunt venison for his father. Meanwhile, Rebecca, who had overheard the conversation, told the younger son to select one of the best of the younger goats from the herd and bring it to her. She then prepared the food, as she knew her husband liked it best. Saint Jacob, Rebecca ordered, was to deceive his blind father, to present the food to him and to claim to be Esau, the eldest, and himself to collect the blessing. Then Saint Jacob remembered that Esau was very hairy, but that he was smooth of skin. He was disturbed too that, if the deception was detected, he might receive a curse conferred, it belonged to her alone, and that she must be obeyed. (9) His mother then covered his hands, arms, and neck with the skin of the goats she had just prepared, so that he would seem hairy like his brother, and had him dress in the “goodly raiment,” (10) that is, the fine clothes, of Esau.
So it was that the youth, appearing before his father, carried out a subterfuge, by telling his father that he was Esau. At first the Holy Patriarch thought something was amiss, noting that the voice sounded like that of his younger son. But he reached out and touched the young man’s hands, and, feeling the goat hair that had been put over his hairless skin, then said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (11) The father dismissed his suspicions, and the younger son received the blessing that the Holy Patriarch Isaac had intended for the eldest son. When Esau discovered that he had been robbed of his inheritance, he was enraged, and “cried with a great and exceedingly bitter cry.” (12) So angry and bitter was he that his parents feared that he might kill his brother, and so sent Saint Jacob away. Patriarch Isaac came soon to understand that, although he had been deceived, God’s purpose were served in granting the inheritance to the younger, more dependable, son, and so he remained firm in the blessing he had bestowed. As God had ordained, the elder would serve the younger.
The second Holy Patriarch lived on to become one hundred and eighty years of age. What do we learn from his life? From him we learn of certain characteristics much prized by God. He was gentle, wise, honest, forthright, and peaceful, always striving to avoid violence or confrontation. He was, moreover, utterly faithful to God. those attributes we identify as Christlike, and they were exhibited in the Old Testament to a marked degree, almost two thousand years before Christ, by the Holy patriarch Isaac.
(1) Genesis 21:8.
(2) “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Second Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” p. 293.
(3) Isaiah 53:7.
(4) “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. John,” trans. The Rev. Charles Marriott, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, 1st Set., Vol. XIV: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospels of St. John and the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Freemans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 317.
(5) Saint Ambrose of Milan, On Abraham, trans. Theodosia Tomkinson (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2000), p. 36.
(6) Genesis 25:8.
(7) Ibid., 25:26.
(8) Ibid., 25:23.
(9) Ibid., 27:13.
(10) Ibid., 27:15.
(11) Ibid., 27:22.
(12) Ibid 27:34.
SERMON FOUR: HOLY PATRIARCH JACOB (LAKOB)
At the last Sermon, we read the story of the two sons of Holy Patriarch Isaac, in which Saint Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, deceived the Patriarch so that the blessing that conferred the succession, which strictly speaking belonged to Esau, the elder son, was instead given to the younger. So infuriated was Esau that he had lost his birthright that Saint Jacob was sent away, out of fear that Esau, in his rage, would kill his younger brother.
We are reminded here that earlier, before Saint Jacob’s gaining of the blessing by deception, Esau had thoughtlessly sold his birthright for a meal of lentil stew, in fact Esau swore under oath that the birthright now belonged to his brother, if the brother would but give him the food he desired at that moment. (1) As the Holy Scripture notes, “…[T]hus Esau despised his birthright.” (2) Esau despised his birthright, yet his memory was as short as his wits were dull.
Saint Jacob, however, escaped Esau’s wrath by departing for Haran, in Mesopotamia, to the home of his maternal uncle, Laban. In addition to putting distance between himself and his angry brother, there was a second reason for this journey. His parents wished him to marry, but they particularly objected to his marriage to any Canaanite woman. He was to find a woman from among his own kinsfolk and marry her.
On his way to Haran, at a place called Luz, he had a heavenly vision:
And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all families of hte earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I spoken to thee of. And Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. (3)
Upon awakening, the Saint took the stone upon which he had rested his head during his dream, and anointed it with oil, a consecratory act. Renaming the place Bethel, he declared that the stone would signify the House of God. And what of the dream? As with so much of mystical exegesis, with regard to Saint Jacob’s dream there are multiple layers of interpretation.
Saint Jerome writes that the ladder symbolizes the comings and going of God’s Holy Angels whom God if continuously sending into the world to assist us. (4) It is also the ladder by which we ascend, slowly and with difficulty, towards God. Saint Jerome writes:
The Christian life is the true Jacob’s ladder on which the angels ascend and descend, while the Lord stands above it holding out His hand to those who slip and sustaining by the vision of Himself the weary steps of those who ascend. But while He does not wish the death of a sinner, but only that he should be converted and live, He hates the lukewarm and they quickly cause Him loathing. To whom much is forgiven, the same loveth much. (5)
Saint John Chrysostom employs a similar interpretation, when he declares:
Let us learn then, and having reckoned up our faults, let us accomplish their correction in time, and let us determine to correct one this month, another next month, and a third in that which follows. And so mounting as it were by steps, let us get to heaven by a Jacob’s ladder. For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which is it possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners. Let us then lay hold on this means of departure and ascent…. (6)
Finally the Holy Fathers see a deeper symbolism in this. God tells Saint Jacob, during the dream that “in thy seed shall all of the families of the earth be blessed.” (7) “All of the families of the earth” is surely a declaration of universality, in other words, that the potential for salvation will be open to all. Christ Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is precisely the “seed,” the offspring, of which God speaks here, by Whom all the people of the earth will be blessed. Furthermore, the ladder is seen as a symbol of the Most Holy Theotokos who, by her obedience to God’s Will, allowed the link between the earth and the heavens to be re-established for the salvation of mankind and became the “Ladder” by which God descended to earth. (8)
After his dream and his consecration of the place as a House of God, the future Patriarch travelled on to Haran, to the abode of his uncle, Laban. Saint Jacob eventually married both daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel (polygamy was still common among the Israelite people and did not die out for many centuries), and was the father of twelve sons, who would become the progenitors of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. Eventually, he returned to Canaan, since God had promised this land to the descendants of his grandfather, the Holy Patriarch Abraham.
There is an extremely interesting episode that occurred during the journey form Mesopotamia back to Canaan. While Saint Jacob slept, someone began to wrestle with him. Some commentators refer to his wrestling with an Angel, while the best Orthodox exegetes say that he wrestled with Christ God Himself. The actual Biblical texts reads as follows;
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob, And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after thy name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. (9)
The Rheims – Douay version ends with the words, “I have seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved.” (10)
Obviously, he knew, or sensed, that this wrestler was a spiritual being, and he sought the blessing of the being. Indeed, he was blessed and was filled with confidence in his future. It is suggested by the Biblical scholar Father John McKenzie that, since the Saint had just passed in his journey into the borderlands of Canaan when the wrestling match took place, that God was offering a sort of symbolic resistance to his return, to test his strength of purpose. (11) That he persisted even with the pain of his thigh being pulled out of its socket at the touch of the being was certainly proof of his tenacity.
The Holy Patriarch Jacob was another was another truly remarkable Old Testament figure, like his father and grandfather. With his twelve sons, the people of God were at last expanding rapidly, to fulfil God’s promise that they would be in number like the stars in the night time sky.
These discussions of these Old Testament Saints are necessarily greatly abbreviated. It is therefore strongly recommended that we develop the habit of reading the Holy Bible each day and, right now, of reading the full stories of these great Holy Patriarchs. Modern-day Orthodox Christians are not well schooled in the Old Testament, and why this has been produced plus ours so they can be easy read to the benefit of the reader.
(1) Genesis 25:29 – 34.
(2) Ibid., 25:34.
(3) Ibid., 28: 11 – 16.
(4) “The Letters of St. Jerome,” trans. the Hon. W. H. Freemantle, the Rev. G. Lewis, and the Rev. W. G. Martley, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 2nd Ser., Vol. VI: St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), p. 24.
(5) Ibid., p. 104.
(6) “The Homilies of St. Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. John,” p. 312.
(7) Genesis 28:14.
(8) See Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, The Law of God: For Study at Home and School (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1996(, p. 140.
(9) Genesis 32:24-30.
(10) Ibid., 32:30.
(11)John L McKenzie, S. J.,Dictionary of the Bible, p. 409.
SERMON FIVE: HOLY PATRIARCH JOSEPH (IOSEPH)
In our previous discussion we spoke of the Holy Patriarch Jacob, and it was briefly mentioned that he was father of twelve sons, which sons became the founders and fathers of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The eleventh of these sons, Saint Joseph, the first-born son of Saint Rachel, is our subject today, and a truly extraordinary man he was.
Saint Joseph became his father’s favourite from among his sons. We do not know exactly why this was so. Holy Scripture only notes that Holy Patriarch Jacob “loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age.” (1) From the Biblical accounts, it is clear that there was an open-hearted innocence about this young man, quite in contrast to his older brothers, and no doubt this endeared him to his father. His father showed his affection by honouring his son with a beautiful gift, a coat of many colours. To us this may not seem like much. But, in the second millennium before Christ, when all clothing was made completely by hand – from shearing the sheep, to spinning the wool, to dying the wool, to weaving the threads, to sewing the garment – , and using the crudest of tools, it was an object that had required an immense output of human labour and so was a costly gift.
However, the gift of the coat of many colours aroused the jealousy of the Saint’s brothers, a jealousy that turned into deep hatred that burned in their breasts like some all-consuming fire. Saint Joseph, oblivious to his brothers’ unhappy sensitivities, then told them of a dream he had:
And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. And he said into them, Hear, I pray you, this dream I have dreamed. For, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and made obeisance to my sheaf. And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? Or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hate him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. (2)
The young man related these stories to his brothers in his innocence and simplicity, not suspecting for a moment the anger these tales were kindling. Finally, the point was reached where the brother felt they could tolerate the situation no longer. The vessel of evil overflowed (to borrow words from the theologian Ivan Mikhailovich Andreyev). At first they plotted to kill their younger sibling, but, upon reflection, it was decided to sell him into slavery. That they did, for twenty pieces of silver, to some travelling merchants on their way to Egypt.
To conceal their crime, they took the coat of many colours, stained it with the blood of a goat, and presented it to their father, the Patriarch Jacob. It was immediately thought that he had been devoured by a wild animal. Patriarch Jacob was inconsolable:
[He] rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him. (3)
The merchants sold young Joseph to a wealthy Egyptian by the name of Potiphar, who, the Holy Scriptures say, was “an officer of Pharoah’s, and captain of the guard.” (4) Saint Joseph “found grace in [Potiphar’s] sight, and he served him, and he made him overseer over his house, and all that [Potiphar] had he put into [Joseph’s] hand.” (5) God blessed the house of Potiphar, “for Joseph’s sake.” (6) and Potiphar enjoyed great prosperity thanks to the new manager of his home and estate.
Unfortunately, Potiphar’s wife was attracted to the Saint, since he was young and handsome, and suggested that they engage in an immoral relationship. Saint Joseph brusquely rejected the advances of this woman, telling her that his master, Potiphar, had granted him great honours and the highest trust and, therefore, it was unthinkable that he could possibly “do this great wickedness, and sin against God.” (7) Spurned, she told her husband that his new overseer had made improper advances to her, and that she had rejected him. Potiphar had Saint Joseph sent to prison, for what was (had it been true) a crime against Potiphar and his household.
But God continued to watch over his servant, and thus the keeper of the prison came quickly to be impressed with Saint Joseph’s honesty and decency, and put him in charge of the other prisoners. And, while in prison, he established a reputation for his ability to interpret dreams.
Two years later, the great Pharoah himself had a mystifying dream. In it, seven fat cattle came up out of the Nile and were followed in their turn by seven lean cattle, who devoured the seven fat cattle. Then, in a second dream, seven healthy ears of corn were devoured by seven thin ears of corn. Pharaoh was much troubled by his dream, when a servant told him of Saint Joseph’s gift of interpretation. He was sent for and interpreted the dream: The seven fat cattle and ears of corn represented seven ears of plenty, while the seven lean cattle and thin ears of corn foretold seven years of famine. “This, said the Saint, “is the thing which I have spoken unto Pharoah: What God is about to do he sheweth unto Pharoah.” (8) He went on to counsel Pharoah to set apart substantial portions of the food and grain each year, during the years of plenty, so as to assure the survival of Egypt during the years of dearth.
Pharaoh made Saint Joseph his highest minister. “Thou shalt be over my house, and according unto thy word shall all my people be ruled: only in the throne will I be greater then thou.” Moreover,
Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; and he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. (9)
When famine struck, it fell not only upon Egypt, but on adjacent lands as well, including Canaan, Saint Joseph’s old homeland. It was a terrible famine, but Egypt, though it suffered, nevertheless was able to feed its people, thanks to the Saint’s provident rule. “And all countries came into Egypt to Joseph for to buy corn; because that the famine wasso sore in all lands.” (10)
It happened that, in Canaan, the Holy Patriarch Jacob, his clan also suffering famine, dispatched his sons to Egypt to purchase grain. There they went, and came into the presence of their long-vanished brother. He immediately recognised them, yet they failed to recognize the true identity of this Egyptian prince, who was dressed and groomed in the Egyptian style and spoke to them in the Egyptian tongue, through an interpreter. Deeply did they bow before him, touching their foreheads to the ground, exactly as Saint Joseph had dreamed so many years before. Grain was purchased and several trips were made by Saint Joseph’s kinsmen between Canaan and Egypt. He finally revealed himself to his brothers amid many tears, reassured them that they had nothing to fear, and invited them to settle in Egypt, near to him. That they did, and Saint Joseph was reunited with his father and all his kinsfolk. In Egypt, the Hebrew people prospered for many generations.
What do we learn from the Biblical accounts of the Holy Patriarch Joseph? Even more markedly than his forebears, he is a type of Christ Jesus. Guileless, he was sold by his brothers for twenty pieces of silver, as the guileless Christ was sold by Judas for thirty pieces of silver. Hated and rejected by his own brothers, given horrifying treatment by them, he nonetheless ever returned good in exchange for evil, and forgave them all without hesitation, blessed them, and assured their prosperity. When reunited to his brothers, he wept, since he had never ceased to love them, despite their treachery. Humiliated repeatedly, he kept his trust in God, knowing that God would protect him.
(1) Genesis 37:3.
(2) Ibid., 37:5-9.
(3) Ibid., 37:34-35.
(4) Ibid., 37:36.
(5) Ibid., 39:4.
(6) Ibid., 39:5.
(7) Ibid., 39:9.
(8) Ibid., 41:28.
(9) Ibid., 41:42-43.
(10) Ibid., 41:57.
SERMON SIX: HOLY PATRIARCH JOB (IOB)
We have completed our introduction and the stories of the four Holy Patriarchs of the Old Testament. We now begin an investigation into the lives of the many Holy Prophets, starting with the Holy Prophet Job.
It is not precisely clear when the Prophet Job lived. From the nature of the religious observances mentioned in the Book of Job, however, it is clear that he lived during the Patriarchal Era, when sacrifices to God were still offering by the head of the clan, rather than by the separate priestly caste that characterized the later history of the Hebrew people, after the time of the Holy Prophet Moses.
The life of Saint Job begins with these words: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” (!) The Rheims-Douay version begins, “There was a man in the land of Hus….” Where the land of Uz or Hus was located exactly is not absolutely certain, but many scholars believe that it was most probably somewhere on the northern edges of Arabia.
The Holy Prophet was, like the Patriarch Abraham, a man of considerable wealth. He had seven sons and three daughters. His possessions included, among other things, more than ten thousand head of livestock; sheep, camels, oxen, and so forth. Remember that these were not landed people, but nomads, and so wealth was portable, and was primarily measured in numbers of livestock. The Prophet Job’s family was “a very great household” (2) and he “the greatest of all men of the east.” (3)
The Book of Job then recounts a conversation between God and Satan, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? (4)
Satan responded that he was prefect and upright only because God had blessed him with such wealth and happiness and that if God were to remove that earthly prosperity, “he will curse thee to thy face.” (5) God, of course, knew better, and so told Satan that He would allow Satan to have power over all that Saint Job possessed. And so, under Satan’s power, his great flocks of sheep and other livestock were either stolen by marauders or destroyed by fire from the heavens. Servants after servant appeared before the Holy Patriarch, each with a spate of terrible news. The succession of disasters fell upon him like the repeated blows of some hellish hammer, until all of his wealth was gone. Then came the final, ultimate disaster: the house in which his sons and daughters were eating together was blown down by a great wind, killing everyone within.
Yet, despite these horrific troubles, insofar as his faith in God was concerned, Saint Job remained utterly unswerving. Holy Scripture declares:
Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (6)
And the next verse says, “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” (7)
God and Satan conversed again, and God pointed again to the perfection of His servant, and how, even after the worst catastrophes imaginable, “still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause.” (8) But Satan had another scheme in mind, and said to God, “But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” (9) God then gave Satan power over Saint Job himself with the exception of his life, which was to be spared in any case. And, so Satan caused him to be covered literally from head to toe with horrible boils. The Saint merely accepted this latest affliction, took a fragment of broken pottery, a potsherd, to scrape his skin, and “sat down among the ashes.” (10) And so, in a very short time indeed, the Holy Prophet Job had gone from being “the greatest of all the men of the east” to complete poverty, and complete disgrace insofar as the world is concerned, sitting in a rubbish heap scraping his skin with a fragment of a broken clay pot.
The Holy Prophet’s wife despaired, advising him that, in view of the now grim circumstances of his life, he should throw away his faithfulness to God, since it had gained him nothing, and instead simply “curse God, and die.” (11) But he answered, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.” (12)
Three of the Holy Prophet’s friends, who had heard of his immense misfortune, now visited him to offer him some comfort: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. But what they had heard did not prepare them for the sight that presented itself upon their arrival. The friends were stunned by what they found, horror-stricken by this forlorn, diseased, spectre-like figure of mere skin and bones, sitting amid a pile of filth and ashes. Never before had they seen anything like this. Immediately, they were convinced that God could only have stricken Saint Job so severely because of his sinfulness and so counselled him to repent of his sins and sinful ways, and thus again God’s confidence.
The Holy Prophet Job rebutted their interpretation, insisting that he had done nothing to warrant so drastic a punishment. At the same time, he was baffled by his plight and questioned God. How could it be consistent with God’s justice? What had he done to deserve such treatment? Why had God so dealt with him? Nonetheless, his failure to be able to comprehend the recent course of events notwithstanding, he trusted that God would somehow do right by him.
God then appeared in a whirlwind, asking “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (13) God continued, explaining the power of the Almighty, in contrast to the smallness and weakness of man. How is it that ignorant men, who do not understand the real nature of the world and know nothing of the intricacies of God’s creation, could possibly hope to understand God’s reasons for choosing to do one thing and not another, or presume to pass judgement on, or question in the least, God’s acts?
The Holy Prophet Job was instantly sobered by God’s words, and said, “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.” (14) God continued to chastise him, and Saint Job was contrite, saying, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (15)
At last, God restored to the Holy Prophet twice the livestock and wealth he had lost. In time, he was blessed with another seven sons and three daughters, and lived to extreme old age, old enough to enjoy the sight and company of four generations of his offspring.
The lessons from the life of the Holy Prophet Job are quite obvious; indeed, they are axiomatic. Saint Basil the Great instructs us that we are
Taught endurance by Job who… in one moment…was plunged from wealth into penury, and from being the father of fair children into childlessness, remained the same, keeping the disposition of his soul all through uncrushed, but was not even stirred to anger against the friends who came to comfort him, and trampled on him, and aggravated his troubles. (16)
Although God allows adversity of the most horrific kind, we as Christians are to hold fast to our faith in God’s ultimate justice and that, if we but endure in faith, He will bring us to fulfilment and happiness, perhaps in this life, but, if not, most certainly in the life to come. Now, it may be asked, can persons possibly endure what Saint Job endured, and still remain faithful servants of God? They can. We are reminded here of the Holy Martyrs – of the early centuries of the Christian Era and of the twentieth century – who suffered all that the Holy Prophet job suffered, in labour camps, in mines beneath the earth, in arenas face to face with savage beasts, and alongside mass graves, face to face with the muzzles of the rifles of Bolshevist execution squads. If the Holy Prophet could survive such rigours, and the holy Martyrs could uphold their equanimity in the face of the worst terrors, then how much more can we survive our relatively minor calamities and remain close to God.
(1) Job 1:1.
(2) Ibid., 1:3.
(4) Ibid., 1:8.
(5) Ibid., 1:11.
(6) Ibid., 1:20-21.
(7) Ibid., 1:22.
(8) Ibid., 2:3.
(9) Ibid., 2:5.
(10) Ibid., 2:8.
(11) Ibid., 2:9.
(12) Ibid., 2:10.
(13) Ibid., 38:2.
(14) Ibid., 40:4.
(15) Ibid., 42:6.,
(16) Saint Basil the Great, “The Letters,” trans. the Rev. Bloomfield Jackson, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 2nd Ser., Vol. VIII: St Basil: Letters and Select Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing C.., 1968), p. 110.
SERMON SEVEN: HOLY PROPHET AND GOD–SEER MOSES (MOYSES)
Two years ago! We explored the lives of the Great Fathers of the past thousand years, and it was noted at that time that the study of the lives and works of the Holy Fathers was rather like viewing a great range of mountains. All of the peaks in the mountain range are colossal and majestic, yet some towers above the others.
Today we speak of the life and accomplishments of the Holy Prophet and God-seer Moses. In that regard, it is no exaggeration to say that, like certain of the Holy Fathers of the Christian Era, this Holy Prophet looms nobly and magnificently above most others, like one of those taller peaks in our mountain range, for in this man were combined a multitude of virtues, particularly courage and love of God. He was the emancipator of his people; he was a commander who guided his charges through great danger to safety; he was the chosen instrument through whom God communicated His law; he was author and he was historian. He was truly among the greatest of the greats of the Old Testament.
The Holy Prophet Moses was born approximately fifteen hundred years before Christ. You will recall that, during the time of the Holy Patriarch Joseph, the Hebrew people had escaped famine by moving to Egypt, and there they prospered for some time, living separately from the Egyptians, but presumably living in a mutually beneficial, collaborative economic relationship with them. moreover, in the several hundred years between the time of the Holy Patriarch Joseph and the birth of Saint Moses, the Hebrew population had expanded considerably. Holy Scripture states that “the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.” (1)
However, eventually a pharaoh ascended the throne who no longer favoured the Hebrew people and who, it seems, resented their prosperity:
Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get then up out of the land.(2)
Rather then expelling them, the Hebrew people enslaved and their forced labour was used by the Egyptians to build cities and monuments for Pharaoh. Yet, the Hebrews continued to grow in numbers. Pharaoh responded ruthlessly and with shocking cruelty, decreeing that all newborn sons of the Hebrew people were to be cast into, and drowned in, the Nile River.
About that time, a son was born to a family of the tribe of Levi, and the mother hid the baby, to prevent his being drowned, and “she hid him three months.” (3) When he could no longer be hidden, she made a basket of bulrushes, sealed it with pitch, placed the child in it, and concealed it along the riverbank. Not long thereafter, a daughter of Pharaoh came to the riverbank to bathe, and discovered the basket. Opening it, she immediately recognized that this was a Hebrew boy, and, since he was crying, had pity on him.
The princess arranged for the child to be nursed by a Hebrew woman who, it happens, was the mother of the baby. The boy grew, and was reared within the Egyptian royal household, as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, indeed as a prince. She named him Moses, because, she said, “I drew him out of the water” (4) (the name in Egyptian indicates “saved from the water”). Now a prince, he was “educated in pagan learning,” (5) according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, but, as we shall see, “he did not choose things considered glorious by the pagans.” (6)
After his adoption into the royal household, the Holy Scripture leaps forward in time. The Holy Prophet is suddenly an adult. We are told that “he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.” (7) Outraged at the treatment of one of his countrymen by the Egyptian, “he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (8)
It was now the turn of Pharaoh to be outraged, when told of the killing, and he ordered that the Holy Prophet be executed. However, the Holy Prophet escaped Pharaoh’s wrath, left Egypt, and “dwelt in the land of Midian.” (9) Now, the Midianites, who were descended from Abraham and so related to the Hebrew people, were a nomadic race, and possessed no national boundaries in the formal sense and no cities or villages. Their land was merely the place where they grazed their flocks.
There, among these people, Moses married a Midianite woman, Zipporah, and to them were born two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Decades passed, and “the king [Pharaoh] of Egypt died,” (10) but the suffering of the Hebrew people remained unchanged. They “sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.” (11)
One day, while the Holy Prophet was tending the flocks, God appeared to him in “a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” (12) – a bush that appeared to burn, but was not consumed by the fire. God told Saint Moses that He had seen the suffering of the Hebrews and that He was sending him to Pharaoh, to plead for the Hebrews, to convince the Egyptian ruler that he must free them and allow them to return to the land promised them by God, “a land flowing with milk and honey. (13)
The Holy Prophet Moses went to Egypt, and, appearing before Pharaoh, told him that God required that he free the Hebrew people from bondage, allowing them to depart Egypt. Pharaoh rejected the petition and ridiculed the Hebrew God. Through the power of God, Saint Moses then brought a series of plagues upon Egypt, to demonstrate to the ruler of Egypt that he should consider the true God most seriously. Thus, the Nile turned to blood, there was a plague of frogs, one of lice, one of flies, a pestilence among the livestock, a plague of boils, a hailstorm that destroyed crops, a plague of locusts, and a darkness that descended on the country for three days. Pharaoh was, however, unmoved.
Finally, upon Pharoah’s continued intransigence, an appalling judgement fell upon the Egyptian people:
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, for the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharoah rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. (14)
Only the Hebrews were spared, since God required of them that each mark his home with the blood of a newly slaughtered lamb. This was the first Passover.
Pharaoh was convinced at last, and ordered that the Hebrew people leave his country. Six hundred thousand departed south-eastward, guided on their journey by a pillar of cloud by day and one of fire by night. Yet, despite all of this, Pharaoh suddenly had second thoughts and set out to recapture the departing Hebrews. The Holy Prophet and his people approached the Red Sea, where, by God’s command, the waters parted, so that they were able to cross as if they were on dry ground. The Egyptian pursuers attempted to follow along the same path, but, at the Holy Prophet’s bidding, the path through the sea closed up, destroying many of Pharaoh’s troops.
The Hebrews now entered upon a forty-year journey through the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula where God miraculously provided them food and water. They came, eventually, to Mount Sinai, where, atop the mount, the Holy Prophet Moses entered into God’s presence. There, God presented his people with His Ten Commandments and set forth the Mosaic codes and various ordinances regulating adherence to moral law, along with rules governing the creation of a tabernacle, a sacred priesthood, and amore formalized Hebrew religion.
And so, the Hebrews continued their journey to their Promised Land. Upon approaching its frontier, the Holy Prophet gazed on the new land from atop Mount Nebo, but did not live to cross into it:
And the Lord said unto him. This is the land which I sware unto Abraham unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. (15)
The Holy Prophet Moses reposed, at age 120 years.
After he had been adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, the great man could certainly have lived out a life of luxury and privilege. However, he chose not luxury and privilege, but took the path of rigour, the path of truth. During his life with the Midianites, he could have remained safe and relatively comfortable among them, with his wife and children. He chose not safety and comfort, but took the path of courage, the path of righteousness. Those choices are marksof genuine greatness.
In his Life of Moses, Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:
These thing concerning the perfection of the virtuous life…we have briefly written…, tracing in outline like a pattern of beauty the life of the great Moses so that each one of us might copy the image of the beauty which ahs been shown to us by imitating his way of life. What more trustworthy witness of the fact that Moses did attain the perfection which was possible would be found than the divine voice which said to him: “I have known you more than all others”? It is also shown in the fact that he is named the “friend of God” by God Himself……All such things are a clear testimony and demonstration of the fact that the life of Moses did ascend the highest mount of perfection. (16)
(1) Exodus 1:7.
(2) Ibid., 1:8-10.
(3) Ibid., 2:2.
(4) Ibid., 2:10.
(5) Gregory of Nysaa. The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 34.
(7) Exodus 2:11.
(8) Ibid., 2:12.
(9) Ibid., 2:15.
(10) Ibid., 2:23.
(12) Ibid., 3:2.
(13) Ibid., 3:8.
(14) Ibid., 12:29-30.
(15) Deuteronomy 34:4.
(16) Life of Moses, pp. 136-137.
SERMON EIGHT: HOLY PROPHET JOSHUA (IESOUS)
In our previous discussion, we spoke of the mighty Prophet Moses, who led his people out of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land of Canaan. There the Holy Prophet reposed. However, before his repose, Saint Moses asked God to choose a successor to continue to lead the people, so that they “be not as sheep which have no shepherd.” (1) God’s response was immediate.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay thine hand upon him; and set him before Eleazer the priest, and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight. And thou shalt put some of thine honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel maybe obedient. And he shall stand before Eleazer the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgement of Urim before the Lord: at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. And Moses did as the Lord commanded him…. (2)
The Holy Prophet Joshua was, of course, well known to Saint Moses, since for many years he had served as his chief deputy and close advisor. He had previously been entrusted to lead a military campaign against the Amalekites, and won victory. He was a part of a group sent secretly into Canaan to gather intelligence on the state of affairs in that land, so as better to judge the prospects for a successful invasion by the Israelite people. And, earlier, he had accompanied Saint Moses part way up Mount Sinai, when God gave His commandments. Thus, he enjoyed the total confidence of the Holy Prophet Moses and, clearly, the confidence of God. what sort of man was Saint Joshua?
We know that the Holy Prophet Joshua was the son of a man named Nun, and was of the tribe of Ephraim. Little else of a personal nature is known of him. What we do know for certain is that he was forceful, resolute, and dominating and was a brilliant, military leader.
The Book of Joshua begins with these words:
Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying, Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel. (3)
Moreover, God commanded Joshua, “…[B]e thou strong and very courageous.” (4) And so the invasion of Canaan was underway. Canaan was not a single nation with a homogeneous population. Rather, it was a congeries of tribal groups and city states that included Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and others. From a religious point of view, these peoples practiced various forms of idol worship, very often by means of greviously immoral rituals and sometimes with rites involving human sacrifice, even infant sacrifice. (5) Canaanite religions were exceedingly malignant and satanic.
The Israelite army struck first at the city of Jericho. Like all cities at that time, Jericho was walled for protection, and at the approach of the Israelite host, its gates were shut tight. God instructed Saint Joshua that his army was to surround the city, and to go around it once, for six consecutive days. Then, on the seventh day,
Seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams’ horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets. And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the rams’ horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat…. (6)
And so it was.
Jericho fell, and was destroyed. “And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” (7) Furthermore, “they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.” (8)
If we blanch at the pitiless destruction at Jericho, we should remember two things. First, this was a period when mankind was still extremely primitive and savage. It was, universally, a brutal age. Second, the people of Jericho were extraordinarily spiritually tainted by their paganism and pagan rites. During the attack on Jericho, the Israelite soldiers were warned that this people and their material possessions were accursed in the eyes of God, and that if anything whatever was taken, “ye make yourselves accursed” (9) and bring the curse of God within the camp of Israel. The curse against the city of Jericho was the curse of God Himself, and the order for the total destruction of the city and its people was God’s. above all else, God wished to preserve his people from spiritual contamination, since they were to be the instruments of His Will, to bring redemption to mankind.
It was next the turn of the Canaanite city of Ai to be subdued. On this occasion, however, a different strategy was employed. The Israelites attacked, but upon the appearance of the enemy they appeared to flee some distance. The enemy gathered its army and pursued the Israelites. A concealed Israelite force then attacked the undefended city, while the main Israelite force then attacked the undefended city, while the main Israelite force destroyed its pursuers. Again, the destruction was total.
After the catastrophes at Jericho and Ai, alarm spread throughout nearby cities. The five kings of the Armorites, Adonizedek of Jerusalem, Hoham of Hebron, Piram of Jarmuth, Japhia of Lachish, and Debir of Eglon, formed an alliance to save themselves from a similar fate. But God was with His people again and told Saint Joshua, “Fear them not: for I have delivered them into thine hand; there shall not a man of them stand before thee.” (10) Upon the Israelite attack, God threw the Amorites into confusion, and they fled, and God Himself participated in the rout, casting “down great stones from heaven upon then unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones then they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.” (11) Since daylight was running out and the battle incomplete, the Holy Prophet Joshua prayed to the Lord to stop the movement of the heavenly bodies, “[a]nd the sun stood still, and the moon stayed” (12) and the triumph of the Israelites was absolute. So it happened that a large area of Canaan fell before Saint Joshua’s conquering armies.
Subsequently, the remaining regions of the Promised Land were conquered. In all, it took the Israelites seven years to subjugate the entire land promised by God. That they did with God’s help, and so all of God’s promises to the Holy patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were fulfilled.
When old age finally overtook him, the Holy Prophet Joshua renewed the covenant between God and his people. He especially warned the Israelites to avoid unnecessary contact with the pagan peoples living in the region and demanded that they assiduously remain faithful to God. he then reposed, at age 11o years.
The story of the Holy Prophet Joshua reads like a military history, for it served God’s purpose at that time to appoint a military commander, a great general, to guide His people to victory and thus to fulfil His promises. Relentless, decisive, and rugged, Saint Joshua was the perfect man for the moment.
Saint John Chrysostomos calls attention to the fact that Jesus Christ;s name – in Hebrew, (“Yeshua’”) – is also the same as the Holy Prophet Joshua’s name in Hebrew, ( in Greek, [“Iesous”]). Thus, we see, Saint Joshua too a type of Christ Jesus. One, says Saint John, “brought the people into the land of promise.” (13) The other brings His people “into heaven, and to the good things of heaven.”
(1) Numbers 27:17.
(2) Ibid., 27:18-22.
(3) Joshua 1:1-2.
(4) Ibid., 1:7.
(5) See Wisdom of Solomon 12:4-6.
(6) Joshua 6:4-5.
(7) Ibid., 6:21.
(8) Ibid., 6:24.
(9) Ibid., 6:18.
(11) Ibid., 10:11.
(12) Ibid., 10:13.
(13) “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostomos, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” p. 10.
SERMON NINE: HOLY PROPHET SAMUEL (SAMOUEL)
The Holy Prophet Joshua conquered the land promised by God to the Israelites, and divided the conquered territory into regions, each region being assigned to one of the twelve tribes. Living adjacent to Israel’s territories, in the costal area to the southwest, roughly corresponding to the modern Gaza Strip but extending further north, were a pagan people known as the Philistines. After the arrival of the Israelites and the conquest of Canaan, there existed an ongoing hostility between the Israelites and the Philistines and, between the two peoples, a more-or-less continuous state of war.
After the conquest of Canaan and its settlement, the Israelite people, in accordance with God’s wishes, adopted a unique form of government: ancient Israel was ruled by the Judges, from the time of the Holy Prophet Joshua, roughly 1400 years before Christ, until the elevation of King Saul, approximately 1050 years before Christ. The theory behind this form of government was theocratic, and held that the King of Israel was God Himself and the Judges spokesmen of God. The last of these Judges was the Holy Prophet Samuel, whose story we now hear.
The Holy Prophet Samuel was the son of Elkanah and Hannah. For many years Saint Hannah was thought to be barren, that is, unable to produce children, a cause of great shame among the Israelites. She made a vow to God:
O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord al the days of his life…. (1)
God heard her prayer and granted that she conceive, and “she bare a son, and called his name Samuel…” (2) After he was weaned his mother brought him to the house of the Lord, to the priest Eli, where a handsome sacrifice was made on the child’s behalf. Samuel was turned over to Eli, so that he would be reared by the priest, his life consecrated to God. Time passed, and Samuel grew.
Now it happened that the priest Eli, who was also the governing Judge of Israel, had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Despite being reared in a priestly home, the two sons were extremely unruly and wicked. They stole portions of the sacrificed animals and committed grave sins inside God’s sanctuary. Eli the priest evidently had spoiled his sons and was therefore indulgent with respect to their evil doing, failing to rebuke them sufficiently, so that their grossly uncouth behaviour continued unabated. Not wish standing their deportment, it was Eli intention to appoint his unbelieving sons his successors.
The Holy Prophet Samuel had a vision of God calling him. He answered, “Speak; for thy servant heareth.” (3) God spoke and revealed His intention to punish Eli and his sons, the sons because of their sacrilegious acts, and the priest Eli because he reproved them only gently. With dome reluctance, Samuel revealed the vision to Eli, who simply said. “It is the Lord: Let him do what seemeth him good.” (4)
Some time later, Israel went again to war with the Philistines. Israel suffered a major defeat in which thirty thousand Israelites were killed, among them the two sons of Eli. Not only was this a military disaster, but the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred of objects of the Israelites, was taken by the philistines. When Eli was told all that had happened, “he fell from off the seat backwards by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died.” (5) Thus fell the house of Eli the priest. The first-century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, notes that it was neither the defeat in battle nor the death of his sons that so shocked the old priest, but that the Holy Ark had fallen into the hands of Israel’s enemies. (6)
Carrying away the Ark in triumph and depositing it in their pagan temple of Dagon, the Philistines were stunned to discover the following morning that their idol had fallen on its face, before the Ark. Not only that, but pestilence broke out in their cities and many men were struck down. After these events, the horrified Philistines returned the Ark to their Israelite enemies.
The Holy Prophet Samuel succeeded Eli as Judge of Israel. Although he led them successfully, even into battle, unhappily, the Israelite people at that time often proved faithless and were inclined to be unduly influenced by their neighbours, the pagans. When the Holy Prophet entered old age, people began to ask for a different form of governance. It was noted by them that all other nations were ruled by kings, and so they insisted that they too have a visible king, like the pagans. Samuel was displaced by this request and prayed for divine guidance. God told the Holy Prophet he should ”Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” (7)
God then asked the Holy Prophet Samuel to explain to his people how the appointment of a king would change the nature of Israel for the worse. Samuel, obedient to God, argued eloquently to the people about the great disadvantages in this change in Israel’s form of government. The people nevertheless continued to demand a king. The Holy Prophet again prayed to God, and God spoke to him saying that Samuel should appoint a king of Israel.
And so it was that Saul was anointed the first king for Israelites, although the Holy Prophet remained Judge and acted as chief advisor to the king. For some time Saul was obedient to God and, consequently, blessed by God in his reign; the people prospered and Israel’s armies were victorious over the Philistines. However, when the Holy Prophet Samuel explained to Saul that God had commanded that he was to attack the Armalekites, and that he was to destroy the entire population and all that they possessed, Saul failed to obey. Instead he defied God’s command, taking the best of the Armalekite sheep and oxen.
When challenged by the Holy Prophet for his disobedience, Saul replied that he had taken the sheep and oxen so that they might be offered as sacrifice to God. The Holy Prophet replied,
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as inquiry and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king. (8)
In other words, in whatever God commands He requires obedience, not weak rationalization for disobedience, as if one knows better than God.
For his disobedience, Saul was deprived of God’s blessing as king. The Holy Prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem, at God’s command, and there secretly anointed a young man by the name of David as king. Since he was now deprived of God’s blessing, Saul became sullen and despondent and suffered periods of outright insanity, engendered by an evil sprit. Eventually, he was defeated in battle with the philistines and committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of his enemies. (The story of King Saul and his successor, the Holy Prophet-King David, will be told in greater detail the next chapter.)
The Holy Prophet Samuel reposed sometimes before King Saul’s death. The Holy Scripture states, “And Samuel died; and all the Israelites were gathered together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house at Ramah.” (9)
The Holy Prophet Samuel is accounted one of the great heroes of ancient Israel, nearby on the same level as the Holy Prophet Moses. During his time as Judge, he travelled to the various tribal regions of Israel striving to bring harmony to the Israelite people so that these tribes might become unified, develop a national consciousness, and be fused into a genuine national entity. At the same time, he emphasized that all of this could only be accomplished if the people continuously repented for their sinfulness and remained close to God.
What lessons do we learn from the story of the Holy Prophet Samuel? We learn from the disastrous experience of Eli the priest that it is wrong to spoil one’s children and to indulge their every wish. As such misplaced kindness ruined Eli and his sons, so will it bring great sadness into our lives and those of our children. We learn too that we must obey the law of God, and not make excuses for our disobedience or try to buy off God, as Saul tried to do with his sacrifices. In the Holy prophet Samuel’s words, “to obey is better than sacrifice.” (10)
(1) 1 Samuel (1 Kings) 1:11.
(2) Ibid., 1:20.
(3) Ibid., 3:10.
(4) Ibid., 3:18.
(5) Ibid., 4:18.
(6) Flavius Josephus. “The Antiquities of the Jews,” 5:11:3, in ‘The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whitson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987).
(7) 1 Samuel (1 Kings) 8:7.
(8) Ibid., 15:22-23.
(9) Ibid., 25:1.
(10) Ibid., 15:22.
SERMON TEN: HOLY PROPHET–KING DAVID (DAUID)
To those who commit grave sin, who are “hurled into the very gulf of sin” (1) as Saint John Chrysostomos writes, it often appears that one so befouled with the filth of sin must remain in that state and that there cannot possibly exist a path back to spiritual whole-someness and cleanliness. That mode of thought is an example of spiritual despondency, which is induced by the Evil One, who whispers such thoughts into the ears of those whom he has captured to assure their resignation to his bondage. The Church, of course, teaches the very opposite to spiritual despondency, assuring even the worst of sinners that the road to spiritual freedom and cleanliness is always open through repentance. That the Holy Church honours and commemorates Saint Mary of Egypt, a notorious sinner who repented and became a great Saint, by naming a Sunday during the Great Fast after her, is proof that the road to salvation is always open. Her story is one of the most salient among similar stories from the lives of the Saints. If further evidence is needed, it is offered by the Saint whom we discuss today, the Holy Prophet King David.
As was mentioned in the sermon on the Holy Prophet Samuel, God chose Saint David to be the second King of Israel, the successor to King Saul. He was anointed king by Saint Samuel long before he actually ascended the throne, and for some time he served King Saul by playing the harp, which soothed the king’s mind, troubled as it was by an evil spirit. So pleased was the king by this beautiful music that he appointed the young man his armour-bearer.
It was not long after that time that the Holy Prophet David met the seemingly invincible Philistine giant, Goliath of Gath, in single combat and killed him with a stone, thrown with a sling the utter rout of the Philistine forces. Immediately, Saint David became the great national hero of Israel. The event, the killing of the giant, and the resulting tremendous popularity that surrounded the Saint, brought King Saul’s evil spirit to the fore. The king, burning with jealously began to plot Saint David’s death. Soon, the young man was forced by Saul’s mounting hatred and jealously, and threatening behaviour, to leave the royal court for his own safety. Sometime later King Saul perished at his own hand, after defeat in battle on Mount Gilboa. The Holy Prophet was now bidden by God to assume the throne of Israel himself, for which he had already been anointed.
With the exception of the tribe of Judah, which immediately received Saint David as its king, all Israel at first recognized Ishbosheth, King Saul’s son, as rightful heir. Civil war ensued, but, with the death of Ishbosheth, all Israel eccepted Saint David as King of Israel.
The reign of the Holy Prophet-King David over Israel was at first a great success. By a series of military victories, he succeeded in establishing the complete independence of Israel. Jerusalem was conquered and made the royal capital. Neighbouring countries, mindful of Israel’s military prowess, kept their distance and maintained peace for some time. Unhappily, at the pinnacle of power, serious sin now entered into the Saint’s life.
The Second Book of Samuel (2) relates that
It came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is it not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. (3)
Infatuated with his woman’s beauty, he commanded that she be brought to him, and he then committed adultery with her. As it happened, she conceived as the result of the act of adultery and immediately reported the fact to the king. To conceal his transgression, the king now heaped sin upon terrible sin. He ordered that, in an upcoming battle, Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, be put “in the forefront of the hottest battle,” (4) and that his comrades in arms withdraw from around him during combat, “that he may be smitten, and die.” (5) Indeed, Uriah fell in battle, exactly as had been ordered. The king was therefore, at least indirectly, guilty of murder. The Holy Scripture then states:
And when the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband. And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord. (6)
The Holy Prophet Nathan appeared before the king and accused him of grievous sins against God. pointing out all that had been done for him, raising him to kingship over all Israel, the Prophet asked:
Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the lord, to do evil in his sight? Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife…. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. (7)
The king responded:
…I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. (8)
And so the child of the king and Bathsheba sickened. And Saint David, in a state of complete and sincere repentance, “besought God for the child; and [he] fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.” (9)
The child, however, died, and from that day calamities and grief descended upon the Saint David, as he meekly accepted God’s punishment as punishment deserved. His son Amnon defiled his own sister, Tamar. Absalom, another son, then killed Amnon. Absalom raised a revolt and lad an army against his father and sovereign, requiring Saint David to flee Jerusalem.
Finding refuge at the Mount of Olives, the Saint
went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot: and all the people that was with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up. ….And it came to pass, that when David was come to the top of the mount, where he worshipped God, behold, Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat rent, and earth upon his head. (10)
Ultimately the army of the king defeated the rebellious army of Absalom. But as Absalom fled, riding on a mule, his long hair, which was his pride, caught in the branches of an oak tree, and he was thereby pulled from his mount and left hanging, helpless, from the tree. One of the king’s generals, Joab, upon hearing of Absalom’s circumstances, went immediately to the tree and thrust three spears through his heart. The king, upon hearing of his son’s death, whom he loved dearly despite all, wept and cried out, absolutely heartbroken, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (11) The Holy Prophet David returned to Jerusalem in triumph and ruled over Israel until his seventieth year, when he reposed.
(1) “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” p. 181.
(2) The Second Book of Kings in the Septuagint.
(3) II Samuel (II Kings) 11:2-3.
(4) Ibid., 11:15.
(6) Ibid., 11:26-27.
(7) Ibid., 12:9-10.
(8) Ibid., 12:13-14.
(9) Ibid., 12:16.
(10) Ibid., 15:30,32.
(11) Ibid., 18:33.g
(12) “The homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel of St. Matthew,” p. 182.
(13) The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, trans. Cyril Mango (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 50.
SERMON ELEVEN: HOLY PROPHET–KING SOLOMON
Last week we spoke of the great Holy prophet, King David, the second of the Kings of Israel. In his old age, as he neared the end of his earthly life, it was his determination that the throne would pass to his favourite son, Saint Solomon, a child of the king’s old age, and his son by his beloved Bathsheba. To assure that that son would succeed him, since his elder brothers would likely contend for the crown, the king commanded that he be anointed king while the fatherstil ruled, and that he serve alongside his father as co-ruler of Israel.
Holy Scripture tells us:
Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying, I go the way of all the earth: be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man; and keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgements, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and withersoever thou turnest thyself: that the Lord may continue his word which he spake concerning me, saying, If thy children take heed to their way, to walk before me in truth with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail thee (said he) a man on the throne of Israel. (1)
And a few verses, it says:
So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. And the days that David reigned over Israel were forty years: seven years reigned he in Hebron, and thirty and three years reigned he in Jerusalem. Then sat Solomon upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was established greatly. (2)
The First Book of King’s (3) relates an episode that took place just after the Holy Prophet Solomon’s accession to the throne. God appeared to him in a dream and offered him a gift of whatever he would ask, whatever he wished. The Holy Prophet responded:
I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? (4)
God was pleased that the Holy Prophet-King Solomon had not asked for riches, nor a long life, nor anything else for himself, but for an understanding heart, so that he might rule with wisdom. And so did God grant this gift to him, along with wealth and a long life also, so long as he obeyed God’s commandments. To a very great extent, even after the passage of nearly three millennia, the person of Saint Solomon and his reign are defined in terms of his understanding heart and wisdom. Indicative of this is that the Book of Proverbs is ascribed to him, as well as the Books of Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon.
The holy Prophet-King Solomon ruled wisely throughout his reign, which lasted from about 961 B.C., to about 922 B.C., a reign of forty years. It was, for the Israelite people, a true Age of Gold, both literally and figuratively. Israel enjoyed immense prosperity and blessed peace throughout the period, and wealth poured into the country.
We should not forget, in discussing the prosperity of the kingdom of Israel at this time, that this nation was, beneath the surface, unlike neighbouring states. Biblical scholar, Father John McKenzie tiny was determined by its fidelity to God;
Israel…was a society governed by the will of the Lord. …If Israel was not a society governed by the will of the Lord, then it ceased to be the people of the Lord; it had no reason for existence other than the reasons which bring any civil society into existence… The common good, for the Israelite state, was still the supreme temporal welfare of the community; but this could not be attained except in subordination to the will of the Lord. For Israel, like all ancient Oriental states, expected the common good from the Deity; but the good will of the Deity of Israel could not be ensured by the cultic ritual alone. The entire character of Hebrew society was determined by the will of the Lord. (5)
In other words, unlike its neighbours, the Kingdom of Israel was required to be faithful to God, not only outwardly and in its formal religious rites, but in the hearts of the rulers and people as well. Anything less than that, as we shall see in future discussions, was to court disaster.
Thanks to the effort of his father, the new king ruled over a small Israelite empire, stretching from the Euphrates River in the north of the frontiers of Egypt in the south. It was to his benefit that rivals states, Babylon and Egypt, were passing through periods of temporary decline and so were unable to menace Israel. To assure the safety of his kingdom, the Holy Prophet erected great fortresses at strategic positions throughout the land and maintained a sizeable and well-equipped army. At the same time, towards all adjacent countries, the Israelite king held out the hand of peace and peaceful trade.
It was according to God’s wishes that the Holy Prophet-King Solomon build the great Jerusalem Temple. That he did construct, a wondrous creation according to the Holy Scripture, which Saint Photios describes as a work “which eclipsed all the temples before it in beauty, size, and magnificence.” (6) In addition, he constructed many other great public buildings and vast gardens, making Jerusalem a veritable jewel of the eastern Mediterranean.
Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy writes that when the great Temple was completed,
Solomon summoned all the elders and many of the people for its consecration. To the sound of trumpets and the singing of spiritual songs the Ark of the Covenant was brought in. The glory of the Lord, in the form of a cloud, filled the Temple so much that the priests could not continue the service. Then Solomon went up to his royal place on his knees, and with uplifted hands prayed to God….(7)
In part, the Holy Prophet-King prayed:
And now, O God of Israel, let thy word, I pray thee, be verified, which thou spakest unto thy servant David my father. But will god indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded? Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God, to hearken unto thy cry and to the prayer, which thy servant prayeth before thee to day: that thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward this place. And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest, forgive.(8)
And, not, if you will, the Holy Prophet’s humility in knowing that even in so great a building as the new Temple of Jerusalem, God could not be contained. Yet, in his humility he prayed that God would hear the supplications of His servants, and forgive them their sins.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, as I mentioned a moment ago, is ascribed to the Holy Prophet Solomon. The wise Father and teacher of the Church of Greece, Metropolitan Augoustinos of Phlorina, confirms that the author of Ecclesiastes “is none other than the glorious son of David, the wise of Solomon….”(9) Let us therefore draw from its wisdom:
A good name is better then precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by thy sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song [the flattery] of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity. Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyed the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? For thou dost not enquire wisly concerning this.(10)
My beloved children in Christ, the Book of Ecclesiastes of the Holy Prophet-King Solomon is a book of wisdom because it is a book of both piety and of sobriety. The Christian, in his view of the world, is, like the great king, both pious and sober. He is a realist. He does not live for momentary pleasure, in a paradise of fools. He grasps that the joy of this world are temporary, that life is punctuated with more sorrows than joys, and that, as the Holy Prophet writes, “vanity of vanities…, all is vanity.”(11)
That does not mean that the Christian believer does not enjoy the beauties of this world or the happy moments of life, or does not express his joy in these things with smiles and laughter. He does enjoy them, but he is ever mindful that they are brief, temporary interludes along the path that takes us from our birth to our death to our entrance into eternal life; he knows that what lies in the past, both the good and the bad, are lessons, and that what lies in the future is a mystery.
Let us live our lives with these truths in mind. Whatever joys or sorrows life brings us, may we do as the Holy Prophet-King Solomon admonishes us, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”(12)
(1) I Kings (III Kings) 2:1-4.
(2) Ibid., 2:10-12.
(3) The Third Bok of Kings in the Septuagint.
(4) I Kings (III Kings) 3:7-9.
(5) John L. McKenzie, S.J., The Two-Edged Sword: An Interpretation of the Old Testament (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1966), pp. 151-152.
(6) The Homiles of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 188.
(7) Archpriest Seraphim Slobodsky, The Law of God, p. 189.
(8) I Kings (III Kings( 8:26-30.
(9) Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, A Panoramic View of Holy Scripture, Volume One: Orthodox Homilies Introducing All the Books of the Old Testament, trans. Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 2001), p. 160.
(10) Eccelesiastes 7:1-10.
(11) Ibid., 1:2; 12,8.
(12) Ibid., 12:13.
SERMON TWELVE: HOLY PROPHET JOEL (LOEL)
Before we enter into our consideration of the Holy Prophet Joel, let us familiarize ourselves with the history of the period. You will recall that after the establishment of the Israelite state, the country was ruled by Judges, a form of government that lasted for more than three hundred years. The people then demanded the establishment of a monarchy, in imitation of their neighbours. The Kingdom of Israel, as a national entity that united all of the Hebrew people of the twelve tribes under a single king, lasted from the beginning of the reign of King Saul until the end of the reign of the Holy Prophet-King Solomon, about 120 years. Then, history records another dramatic change.
While the reign of King Solomon brought great prosperity to the nation, it came at a substantial cost. The great Temple complex in Jerusalem, the extravagant palaces of the king, and the other public buildings constructed at that time, including the many fortresses for defence, meant that the people were heavily taxed. Not only that, but much of the labour for these projects came from the corvee, that is, forced labour without pay, which the poorer folk owed to their monarch in lieu of taxes.
In the south, where Jerusalem is located and where the population to some degree benefitted directly from these great expenditures, there was relative contentment. In the north of the kingdom, however, which was wealthier in resources than the south and therefore paid significantly more in taxes, but which received little in the way of direct benefit, resentment multiplied as the year passed.
At the death of the Holy Prophet Solomon, his son Rehoboam ascended the throne. As his father was wise and prudent, Rehoboam was impetuous and tactless. At the time of his accession to the throne, he was asked to lighten the burden of taxation and told that, were he to do so, the people throughout the land would follow him loyally. However, ignoring the advice of his elder counsellors, he responded scathingly to the pleas of the people, saying, “And now whereas my father did lade you wish a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you wish whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”(1) Whatever gifts Rehoboam may have possessed, winning friends were evidently not one of them. In fact, nowadays that kind of response would be called a “public relations disaster,” and indeed, that is precisely what it was then. The historian Josephus remarks that “By these words the people were struck, as it were, by an iron hammer….”(2)
From that moment, the northern part of the kingdom rose in rebellion. A separate kingdom was established, and Jeroboam I, who in earlier times had attempted the overthrow of the Holy Prophet Solomon, became king of the new state. Thenceforth, the north was known as the Kingdom of Israel, composed of ten of the twelve tribes and with its capital initially at Shechem,(3) while the south was known as the kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem and composed of two tribes, the principle one of which was the tribe of Judah.
Today, as was noted, we discuss the Holy Prophet Joel. We do not know exactly when this Holy Prophet lived; theories abound. Yet, we do know that he lived after the partition of Israel, and that he lived in the southern Kingdom of Judah. We lack all information on the details of his life and know nothing of his antecedents, except that his father’s name was Pethuel. Some scholars believe they find evidence in the text Book of Joel that the Holy Prophet was the descendant of a priest; however, the evidence is, at best, tenuous.
The Book of Joel is relatively short, being composed of only seventy-three verses, divided into three chapters. In the entirety of the first chapter and the first half of the second chapter we read a description of a terrible plague of locusts that descended upon the land and devoured virtually everything that grows from the soil, following by a great fire that swept the land, burning the debris the locusts had left behind.
Before the advent of modern technology and chemistry plagues of locusts were one of the chief nightmares of agricultural people. Often the locusts could literally blacken the sky as they approached. The farmers and their families and servants might rush to the fields to try to protect the precious crops, but their puny efforts were to no avail. In the face of such numbers, men were utterly helpless. In a matter of hours, abundance and prosperity were transformed into complete devastation; bounteous green fields became instant wastelands. For people living, as it were, from hand to mouth, as was probably the case with most of the Hebrew people, an event of that kind most often spelled starvation, since there were few, if any, reserves on which to fall back. Even today, for farmers in less developed regions of the world, in Africa and Asia, periodic locust plagues remain a fact of life. Therefore, the Holy Prophet’ words, ascribing the plague to God’s wrath for the sins and laxity of the people, were terrifying: “Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of then land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand.”(4)
Yet, there was hope. God, Saint Joel told them, would protect them from future calamity and restore what was lost if they would but repent and begin again to take their responsibilities, as the chosen of God, seriously. The Holy Prophet counselled them:
Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of hi chamber, and the bride out of her closet. Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God? Then will the Lord be jealous for his hand, and pity his people?
Only, in other words, by prayers and fasting and weeping in repentance will greater disaster be averted. With those things, and with steadfast, pious submission to God’s law, God will favour his people with plenty. The Holy Prophet writes:
Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice: for the Lord will do great things. Be not afraid, ye beasts of the field: for the pastures of the wilderness do spring, for the tree beareth her fruit, the fig tree and the vine do yield their strength. …And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. …And ye shall eat in plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed. And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God, and none else: and my people shall never be ashamed.(6)
So, faithfulness brings terrible judgement, while repentance and renewed faith bring forth God’s generosity.
Now, how should Orthodox Christians of the twenty-first century understand these word spoken almost three thousand years ago to a people whom we would regard as primitive? First, we must perceive that a clear concept of an afterlife, in which one gains rewards or punishment in accordance with the way one leads his earthly life, was not clearly delineated in the age of the ancient Hebrew people. God’s revelation, from the time of the Holy Patriarch Abraham until the time of Christ, was a gradual unveiling of the fullness of Truth. As mankind was slowly refined and capable of greater understanding, God revealed more. Consequently, our spiritual forebears in ancient Israel and Judah tended to see God’s justice exclusively in earthly terms, believing that God would deliver His judgements in this life, individually to persons and collectively to nations. Our way of seeing such things is different. As with the locusts, which was God’s reminder that the people were not self-sufficient but wholly dependent upon Him, God indeed sometimes allows disasters to overwhelm us in this life, as a means to strengthen and purify us, and to reach us. Yet, those happenings are by no means the sum of God’s judgement, which will come after the end of all ages and in comparison with which any earthly disturbance, even the worst, is a mere trifle.
And so we grasp the meaning of the sorts of prophecies we read in the Book of Joel, and elsewhere, in spiritual terms. The devastation, for us, is spiritual devastation, the plague a spiritual plague of the Evil One, the dearth a spiritual judgement dearth, the bounty a spiritual bounty, the judgement a spiritual judgement, and the joyous fruits of repentance a spiritual joy in anticipation of spiritual reward.
Of course, the holy men of ancient times apprehended much more than did ordinary people, since they communicated with God Himself. Thus, the prophetic utterances of the Holy Prophet have eschatological import, the earthly catastrophes symbolizing the catastrophes that will accompany the end of the age and the coming of Christ in judgement. We see that additionally, in the case of the Holy Prophet Joel, near the end of the second chapter, wherein he prophecies the coming of the Holy Spirit upon “all flesh,” that is all of the peoples of the world: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and yours sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”(7)
In his sermon after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, speaking to the multitudes gathered in Jerusalem from the four corners of the earth, the Holy Apostle Peter quoted that very passage, as indicative of what had just then occurred in the upper room, and what was to occur henceforth within Orthodox Christianity, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit.(8)
(1) I Kings (III Kings) 12:11.
(2) Flavius Josephus, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” 8:8:3.
(3) The ruins of Shechem are just outside of modern Nablus. The capital was later moved to Tirzah, and then to the cities of Samaria and Jezreel. (See Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel [New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1084], p. 113-116.)
(4) Joel 2:1.
(5) Ibid., 2:15-18.
(6) Ibid., 2:21-22, 2.4, 26-17.
(7) Ibid., 2:28.
(8) See Acts 2:17.
SERMON THIRTEEN: HOLY PROPHET JONAH (IONAS)
The story of the adventures of the Holy Prophet Jonah is a wondrous and, in certain respects, a delightful one, known to many people otherwise unknowledgeable of the Old Testament and of its countless fascinating figures.
The Holy Prophet Jonah is counted one of the minor, or lesser, Prophets, of which there are twelve. Why are they minor or lesser? They are so designated, explains Metropolitan Augoustinos of Phlorina, “not because they had less value, but because their books are small, or short.”(1) He goes on to say that, “though they are small in length, they are large in value.”(2)
We first read of this Saint in the Second Book of Kings.(3) The text reads:
He [the King of Israel, Jeroboam II] restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher.(4)
So, having almost no biographical information on the Holy Prophet, we do at least know that his father’s name was Amittai and that he came from the town of Gathepher, in the northern Kingdom of Israel. We know, from verses preceding the one we just quoted, that Jonah lived in the eighth century B.C., during the reign of Jeroboam II, King of Israel. Finally, we know from this passage that he prophesied accurately that the Kingdom of Israel would regain its coast.
The Book of Jonah is very small only forty-eight verses, occupying about two pages in the Holy Bible. It begins, “Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.” (5) Nineveh, a pagan city and the capital of the Assyrian Empire, and sunk into sinfulness so terrible that God was contemplating the city’s destruction as punishment. However, giving the city another chance, He commanded His Prophet, Saint Jonah, to go there and preach repentance, so that He might spare that place and its people. The next verse explains that Saint Jonah, instead of following God’s command, rushed to Joppa, and there booked passage on a ship going to Tarshish. Though the matter is disputed, many scholars believe that Tarshish was a Carthaginian city on the coast of Spain – that is, as distant from Israel as one could possibly journey in those days; on the edges, so to speak, of the known world. The Holy Prophet was travelling as far as he could from his homeland, hoping to flee from God and to hide from Him. Why?
First, pious Israelites were disgusted by pagans and their unclean, immoral ways of life. Saint Jonah wanted nothing to do with the Ninevite’s. Secondly, the Assyrians were a serious threat to Saint Jonah’s own homeland; they were enemies of the Israelite Kingdom. For the Holy Prophet to travel to Nineveh and preach repentance to the people of that city incurred the risk that the Ninevites might respond favourably, repent, and be saved from God’s wrath. From the viewpoint of a patriot, which the Holy Prophet was, that was an undesirable possibility. Better if God obliterated Nineveh and the Assyrians, and thereby eliminated one of Israel’s more dangerous adversaries. Thirdly, the Hebrews considered God their God. They were reluctant to share Him and His blessings with foreigners.
Consequently, to escape the odious assignment, the Saint fled in the direction opposite to Nineveh – westward towards faraway Spain. He did not get far, however, The Holy Scripture declares that God “sent out a great wind into the ship was like to be broken.” (6) The other passengers and the ship’s crew were much alarmed, fearing the worst. Questioning Saint Jonah, they quickly ascertained that his disobedience to God, back in Israel, was the cause of the storm. What should they do? they asked. The Saint replied, “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” (7) Yet, they were loath to throw anyone overboard, fearing another judgement of God for taking a man’s life. Hard as they struggled, however, they could not overcome the tempest. They therefore “took up Jonah, and cast him into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.” (8) The Prophet did not have to contend with the sea for long, however, since “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (9)
The Holy Prophet Jonah, confined in the belly of the great fish, began earnestly to pray to God, placing his complete trust in Him: “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee. (10) …Salvation is of the Lord.” (11) Then, after three days, “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.” (12)
But God had not finished with His servant. Again, He commanded His Holy Prophet to journey at once to Nineveh . Recognizing his helplessness before God’s power, he obeyed and, upon his arrival, began preaching the necessity for immediate repentance, or else Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days’ time. The King of Nineveh heard of the prophecy and, remarkably, believed. He cast off his fine regalia, and donned sackcloth and ashes. Moreover, he issued a royal decree. The inhabitants of the city were to fast strictly, to wear sackcloth, to turn away immediately from al evil, and to pray to God for deliverance. God heard their cries and “saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.”(13) Nineveh was saved.
Curiously, God’s instrument in this astonishing mass conversion, Saint Jonah himself, was most unhappy with this outcome. The Holy Scripture says that Nineveh’s repentance “displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.” (14) He went outside of the city and constructed a tiny hut for shelter. There he sat, waiting and watching, to see what would happen to Nineveh.
God then made a large plant to grow up beside the hut, to provide shade and relief from the heat of the sun and the Holy Prophet was pleased with the added shelter afforded by the plant. Yet the next day God sent a worm to attack the plant, and it withered. Saint Jonah, now exposed to the scorching heat of the sun and doubtless depressed at Nineveh’s repentance, exclaimed that he would be better off dead. God answered by reprimanding His servant for being distressed at the death of a mere plant, but refusing to see that God had saved from death the huge numbers of inhabitants of the great city of Nineveh. (15) And so ends the Book of Judah.
We learn many things from the Book of Jonah. We learn first that the God of the Israelite people was not really a tribal God, but took an interest in the salvation of other peoples. He was, and is, the God Who loves all of mankind. We learn next that, while God takes great displeasure at sinful conduct, He is at the same time merciful if only one sincerely repents of, that is, turns away from, his sins. We learn additionally how merciful God was to His rebellious Prophet, who at first disobeyed Him and then, forced to comply, was resentful and bitter that God had accomplished His purposes. Saint Jonah was, in his intense dislike of the Ninevites, a man of his time. He was, like most of his countrymen, short sighted and parochial, one could even say bigoted, in his outlook. God knew that, of course, and so was patient with His Prophet, rather like a teacher dealing n a kind and understanding fashion with a wrongheaded and obstinate child.
Some final words: modernist scholars claim that the Book of Jonah is a work of fiction. It is not. We have, for our irrefutable evidence in that dispute, the words of Christ Jesus Himself. When the Pharisees demanded of Christ a miracle, He replied:
An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly: so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgement with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold, a greater than Jonas is here. (16)
Christ spoke of the miraculous events related in the Book of Jonah as historical fact, comparing the Holy Prophet’s time in the belly of the fish to His three days in the tomb, about which He was then prophesying. Jonah’s experience in the fish was a type of Christ’s in the tomb. Since the Pharisees were demanding a genuine miracle, Christ would not have offered them an example of a fictional miracle drawn from a fictional story. He gave them, as an example, a genuine miracle drawn from the pages of a book of Sacred Scripture the historicity of which He obviously accepted. And, who would know better, since He was there?
My beloved children in Christ, modernists will say that it is not possible for a man to live in the belly of a fish for three minutes, to say nothing of three days, and so the story cannot be true. And there we have the heart of their problem. They do not believe that miracles are possible. The Orthodox Christian, by way of contrast knows that miracles are preformed by God every day. Metropolitan Augoustinos writes that Christ “performs miracles, miracles not only in the narrow sense of the word – according to which a miracle is something that God does which goes against the laws of nature – but also in the broader sense of the word where a miracle is considered as a direct act of God, something extraordinary and uncommon and beyond usual human experience. And divine Creation,” says the Metroplitan, “is full of such miracles.” (17)
(1) Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, A Panoramic View of Holy Scripture,Volume One, p. 208.
(3) The Fourth Book of Kings in the Septuagint.
(4) II Kings (IV Kings) 14:25.
(5) Jonah 1:1-2.
(6) Ibid., 1:4.
(7) Ibid., 1:12.
(8) Ibid., 1:15.
(9) Ibid., 1:17.
(10) Ibid., 1:7.
(11) Ibid., 2:9.
(12) Ibid., 2:10.
(13) Ibid., 3:10.
(14) Ibid., 4:1.
(15) The text refers here to “sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand” (Jonah 4:11). In other words, the city was so large that there 120,000 infants within, implying a substantial total population, in the many hundreds of thousands at least.
(16) St. Matthew 12:39-41.
(17) Augoustinos N. Kantiotes. Miracles: Orthodox Homilies on Miracles in Nature, Man, Holy Scripture, the History of Nations, and the Church, trans. Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1998), p. XI.
SERMON FOURTEEN: HOLY PROPHET ELIAS (ELIJAH), PART 1
If there is one among all of the Holy prophets who stands our gloriously from among his peers and who, in his life, typifies and, one could say, defines the very idea of a Prophet as one called by God fearlessly to speak truth to the world, it is the Holy Prophet Elias (or Elijah, as he is called in most English-language Holy Bibles). (1) In the book of the Wisdom of Sirach, it is said of the Holy Prophet that he “arose like a fire, and his word burned like a torch.” (2) He is thus among the true spiritual giants of the Old Testament-lofty, uncompromising, unflinching.
The First Book of Kings explains that Ahab, the son of Omri, ascended the throne of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him.” (3) His offence was manifold.
First, he married Jezebel, the pagan daughter of the King of the Zidonians, a Phoenician people living in the region just o the north of Israel, known to history for their wealthy cities of Tyre and Sidon, and framed as great seafaring traders. Not only was Jezebel a pagan, and therefore sensuous and worldly in the extreme, but she was a priestess of her country’s pagan cult. She hated the God of Israel and persecuted and killed God’s Prophets. Secondly, Ahab allowed his queen to import her religion into Israel, which religion was the worship of Baal. The rites of this religion, which were particularly vile and satanic, included sexual depravity and the sacrifice of infants. Thirdly, the king allowed a pagan temple to be erected in Israel, and acquiesced in the killing of Israel’s holy men. Fourthly, he himself, the King of Israel, offered sacrifices to the pagan god to please his wife. Thus it was that King Ahab “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.” (4) The great Saint and Prophet now enters into our story.
The Holy Prophet Elias “the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” (5) In other words, because the king had angered God, His Prophet delivered news of God’s punishment, which was that Israel would be deprived of al rainfall, and even the dew, until such time as the Prophet allowed it.
To protect him from the king’s fury, God told the Holy Prophet Elias to travel to the east, and to hide by a brook known by the name Cherith. The brook, said God, will provide drink, while ravens, under God’s command, would bring him food. And so it was that Saint Elias was fed by ravens, which “brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.” (6) After a time “the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land.” (7) God then instructed the Saint to go to a place called Zarephath and there to stay with a particular widow woman and her son.
When he arrived, he asked for some food, but the widow told the Holy Prophet that she had only a tiny amount of meal in a barrel and a small amount of oil. She had nothing more with which to feed the Prophet, her son, and herself. Saint Elias then promised her that, by God’s Grace, the meal and the oil would not run out for as long as the drought continued in Israel. And, just as the Prophet had promised, the woman’s food supplies continued to re-new themselves miraculously.
Soon after this, the son of the widow became ill. Holy Scripture says that he “fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him.” (8) The boy, in other words, died. The Holy Prophet, however, turned to God for help, saying, “O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.” (9) God heard this prayer
And the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. And [Elias] took the child, and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him unto his mother: and [Elias], Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth. (10)
Three years passed, years of drought and of famine. The governor of the king’s household. Obadiah, a God-loving man, happened, while on an errand for the king, to meet Saint Elias. The Holy Prophet directed Obadiah to go to his king and to inform him where the Saint could be found. The king, upon being told, went to meet the Holy Prophet, greeting him with the words, “Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (11) Abah tried lamely to place the blame for the drought and famine on the Holy Prophet. Saint Elias responded that it was not he that troubled Israel, but rather it was the king who had done this by forsaking the commandments of God and by following the debased precepts of the cult of Baal.
The Holy Prophet now told the king to gather the people of Israel around Mount Carmel, and there to assemble all of the pagan priests of Baal. That done, Saint Elias appeared before them and cast down a bold challenge: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.” (12) Then the Saint exclaimed to the people:
I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it to pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and call ye on the name of yours gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken. (13)
And so the contest took place before the eyes of the people of the kingdom. The priest of Baal, four hundred and fifty of them, chose a bullock, slaughtered it, placed it on the altar, and began to beseech Baal to bring down fire to consume the offering. Hours passed, yet nothing happened. The Holy Prophet ridiculed them, suggesting that perhaps they should beseech more loudly since Baal might be asleep, or might be visiting with friends, or might be on a journey somewhere. They commenced to cry more loudly, to dance wildly, and, in their delirium of frenzy, to cut themselves with knives. Still nothing happened.
Saint Elias then told the people to gather round closely. He reassembled an old abandoned altar, had the wood piled high, placed the bullock upon it, and then ordered that four barrels of water be poured over it all. This he repeated two additional times, until the altar, wood, and animal were thoroughly drenched with water. He then stepped forward and uttered a simple prayer:
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again. (14)
At that moment a great fire came down from heaven and instantly consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones of the altar, the soil around the altar, and even the water soaking the area. It was a monumental victory! The people of Israel were convinced and, at the Holy Prophet’s command, executed the priests of Baal. Saint Elias then advised King Ahab to get into his chariot at once and to go home, since rains were coming. God had lifted the three-year drought.
When she heard of the events at Mount Carmel, Jezebel, needless t to say, was furious and vowed to have the Saint killed as the priests of Baal had been killed. To protect his life, the Holy Prophet went to Mount Horeb, in the Kingdom of Judah. There God spoke to him and told him that he would soon meet a youth named Elisha, the son of Shaphat, and that he was to be anointed a Prophet and the successor to Saint Elias. Soon thereafter the Holy Prophet met the young man, Saint Elisha, ploughing in a field, and, throwing his mantle over him, adopted him as his son and successor. From that moment, Saint Elisha would be his constant companion.
The wondrous life of the Holy Prophet Elias is not finished. Since it is lengthy and complex, and yet of immense value, we shall conclude in the next chapter.
(1) The Prophet’s name in Hebrew is (“’Eliyahu”) The translators of the King James Bible translated the Holy Prophet’s name as “Elijah” in their rendition of the Old Testament, while in their translation of the New Testament they rendered the name according to its Greek form, (“Elias”), The translators of the Rhiems-Douay Bible employed the Greek form of the name, “Elias,” throughout the whole their translation. Nevertheless, “Elijah” has come to prevail in newer English-language Holy Bibles. It is significant in this regard that in earlier English orthography the letter “j” had the same value as “i” or “y.” I have used “Elias” here, since it is more familiar to Eastern Christians.
(2) Wisdom of Sirach 48:1 (New Oxford Bible).
(3) 1 Kings (III Kings) 16;30.
(4) Ibid., 16:33.
(5) Ibid., 17:1.
(6) Ibid., 17:6.
(7) Ibid., 7:7.
(8) Ibid., 17:17.
(9) Ibid., 17:21.
(10) Ibid., 17:22-24.
(11) Ibid., 18:17.
(12) Ibid., 18:21.
(13) Ibid., 18:22-24.
(14) Ibid., 18: 36-37.
SERMON FIFTEEN: HOLY PROPHET ELIAS (ELIJAH). PART II
In the last chapter we surveyed part of the life of the Holy Prophet Elias, known also as Elijah. You will recollect that at the time, the King of Israel, Ahab, had sinned greatly against God by allowing the importation of the pagan cult of Baal into his realm at the bidding of his wife Jezebel, a pagan priestess and daughter of a neighbouring king. However, Saint Elias confounded the enemies of God by entering into a contest wherein rival altars were set up, one to the God of Israel and the other to the pagan god, and a sacrificial bullock placed on each. Wherein of the deities miraculously consumed the sacrifice would thus be proven to be the true God.
Four hundred and fifty pagan priests cried to their false god for hours, begging him to come down and to consume their offering, but to no avail. Then Saint Elias prayed only briefly to God, and fire immediately descended from heaven consuming the bullock, the wood, the stones of the altar, the soil around, and great quantities of water that the Saint had had poured over his offering. The victory for truth was overwhelmingly complete and decisive. But Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, greatly angered by it all, murderously angered in fact, vowed revenge upon Israel’s Holy Prophet. To thwart her wickedness, Saint Elias lived for a while at Mount Horeb, in the Kingdom of Judah. God then instructed him to seek out a young man named Elisha, whom he was to anoint his successor. That he did, and Saint Elisha became, from that time, his adopted son and his chosen successor.
We read in the twenty-first chapter of the First Book of Kings the story of Naboth. Naboth was a resident of Jezreel, the city where King Ahab had his place, and owned a vineyard near to the palace. The vineyard was evidently a fine one, since the king covered it for himself. He set a proposal before Naboth:
‘Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the words of it in money.’(1)
Saint Naboth, however, refused saying that God had forbidden him to relingquish his inheritance from his forefathers.
Naboth’s refusal caused the fires of anger and envy to burn hot in the king’s breast, so much so that he could not eat, thinking of that vineyard. Holy Scripture then relates as follows.
‘But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said unto him, Why is thy spirit so sad, that thou eatest no bread? And he said unto her, because I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money; or else, if it please thee, I will not give thee another vineyard for it: and he answered, I will not give thee my vineyard. And Jezebel his wife said unto him, Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’(2)
Jezebel hatched her evil plot. Against Naboth she assembled false witnesses who testified that he had blasphemed against God and against the king, capital crimes both, for which the penalty was stoning. Poor, innocent Naboth was then carried outside of the city and stoned to death. Jezebel informed the king, and, shamelessly, told him, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jereelite, which he refused to give thee for money: for Naboth is not alive, but dead.”(3) Ahab did as his wife suggested, and took possession of the dead man’s property, the vineyard he had so long covered.
God spoke to the Holy Prophete Elias, explaining the evil done against Naboth and ordered the Saint immediately to appear before the king and to say to him that in killing Naboth and seizing his property he, the king, had condemned himself. For this outrage, God would bring terrible judgement upon Ahab. He would reduce the king and house to ignominy, and, as the dogs licked the blood of the unjustly slain Naboth, so would they lick the blood of King Ahab. Moreover, regarding the malevolent queen, Jezebel, Saint Elias prophesied, “[Her t]he dogs shall eat…by the wall of Jezebel.”(4)
Three years later, King Ahab died in battle, and when his chariot, covered with blood, was washed, the dogs licked his blood. Subsequently, Jezebel was thrown by her enemies from the window of palace into the street, where dogs tore her apart and devoured her body. So God’s judgement was carried out to the precise letter. The shockingly evil deeds of this king and queen wrought evil and ignoble ends.
As the time grew close that God should take His Holy Prophet away, Saint Elias continued to teach his chosen successor and spiritual son, Saint Elisha. When the time came, the Holy Prophet told Saint Elisha several times that, since God was about to take him, the two should part. Saint Elisha responded each time, “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.”(5) Finally, they approached the banks of the River Jordan. The Holy Prophet took his mantle, wrapped it tightly, and struck the waters of the river. The waters parted and the two walked across on dry land. The Holy Prophet Elias then asked Saint Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.”(6) The Holy Prophet replied that it was a hard thing he asked, but that, if, when the Lord took him, he could see him being taken, then his request was granted. If he could not see, then it was not.
The Holy Scripture then says:
And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; [Elias] went up be a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces. He took up also the mantle of [Elias] that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan.(7)
To honour one so great in the love of God, God conferred on Saint Elias the privilege of being taken bodily to heaven without having to die.
The lessons we learn from the story of the Holy Prophet Elias are crystal clear. God detests sin and is prepared to bring severe judgement on those who flout His law. As we have said before, that judgement may descend upon the offender in this life or, if not, most surely in the next. Remember that God knows and see all, and so the evil we do is never hidden from His sight. We learn too that those who possess much – in this case the King of Israel, Ahab – from them much is required. They are held to a higher standard, the highest, and infractions that may be easily forgiven lesser personages are not so easily forgiven them, since they serve as leaders and examples to others.(8) In our time, that would include all civil authorities, and in the Church, all clergy. It includes too, within the context of families and children, parents and teachers. It is clear also from the story of Saint Naboth and his vineyard that God demands social justice. For those in authority to treat those without power arbitrarily and unjustly, assuming God-like powers but exercising those powers improperly, is a most serious sin, one for which the offender will pay dearly, as King Ahab and Queen Jezebel paid.
A few final words about the Holy Prophet are a propos: Saint Elias is the greatest of the Old Testament Prophet and the honour in which he is held in the Orthodox Church is evidenced by the great number of Churches named after him all over the world, and the great number of Orthodox men and boys who bear the name “Elias.” That is in contrast to most of the other Old Testament Saints, few of whom have Churches or children named after them. Let us honour the great Holy Prophet Elias, “Angel in the flesh, foundation of the Prophets, [and] the forerunner of the Second Coming of Christ.”(9)
(1) 1 Kings (III Kings) 21:2.
(2) Ibid., 21:5-7.
(3) Ibid., 21:15.
(4) Ibid., 21:23.
(5) II Kings (IV Kings) 2:2, 4, 6.
(6) Ibid., 2:9.
(7) Ibid., 2:11-13.
(8) King Ahab, of course, fails the test by any standard, lesser or greater.
(9) Apolytikion of Saint Elias the Prophet
SERMON SIXTEEN: ELISHA (ELISCOS)
For two weeks the greatest of the Holy prophets, Saint Elias, has been our subject. It is now our honour to learn more of the spiritual son and anointed successor to Saint Elias, the Holy prophet Elisha. God instructed Saint Elias to make Saint Elisha his successor, and therefore when he found him ploughing a field, the Holy Prophet threw his mantle over the shoulders of the youth, consecrating him, so to speak, a spiritual son. Saint Elisha, from that point forward, flowed his spiritual Father. Assisting him in his divinely ordained labours and repeatedly refusing to be parted from him. Thus, the spiritual son was present when God sent a chariot of fire and a whirlwind to carry Saint Elias off to the heavens.
As with his spiritual Father, Saint Elisha was both a Holy Prophet, in continuous conversation with God, and a wonder-worker who, because of his closeness to God, could work great miracles through God’s Grace and power. We read, for example, that, while visiting Jericho, he was told that the land near the city was barren, because the water nearby was bad. Saint Elisha asked that a new bowl be brought to him, and that it be filled with salt. That bowl of salt he then took to a spring, speaking these words. “Thus saith the LORD, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land. So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake.”(1)
Sometime after that occurence, the Kingdom of Moab, which was a vassal state to Israel and therefore paid a substantial tribute to the Israelite Kingdom, rebelled, to throw off the yoke of vassalage. The Israelite King, Jehoram, the son of the now deceased Ahab, immediately ought an alliance with the southern Kingdom of Judah, whose king was named Jehoshaphat, to put down the Moabite rebellion. Jehoshaphat agreed.
They gathered their armies and moved towards Moab. However, as the great throng of warriors passed through the country of Edom, the king of which was also part of the alliance against Moab, it was discovered that, because of drought, there was a danger that the whole army would perish from lack of sustenance. Remember that, in those days, when an army was on the march, it was necessary for them to bring herds of livestock along, to feed the warriors. The dearth of water meant that the campaign was on the brink of military disaster. King Jehoshaphat asked.
Is there not here a prophet of the Lord, that we may enquire of the Lord by him? And one the king of Israel’s servants answered and said, Here is Elisha the son of Shaphat…. And Jehoshaphat said, The word of the Lord is with him. So the king of Israel and Jehosaphat and the king went down with him.(2)
The appearance of the King of Israel, Jehoram, who was the son of the evil Ahab and the odious Jezebel and about whom Holy Scripture says “he wrought evil in the sight of the Lord,”(3) though not of the magnitude of his father and mother, displeased the Holy Prophet Elisha. Coldly, and with some measure of sarcasm, did Saint Elisha address Jehoram, saying, “What have I to do with thee? Get thee to the prophets of thy father, and to the prophets of thy mother.”(4) However, King Jehoram replied, in sheer desperation, that the war on the Moabites was in danger of failure, because of the lack of water. The Holy Prophet agreed to assist, but only out of regard for the pious King of Judah, Jehoshaphat; were it not for him, Saint Elisha told Jehoram, “I would not look toward thee, nor see thee.”(5) By the prayerful intercession of the Holy Prophet, God immediately provided a great abundance of water to the armies of Israel and Judah, and so assured a spectacular victory over the Moabites.
Let us explore a third example of the power of Saint Eisha’s intercessory prayer. A pious widow woman, whose husband had been the son of a prophet, approached the Saint, explaining to him that, because of her husband’s death, she had been left impecunious. Worse still, creditors threatened to take her children as slaves, in lieu of the debts left by her dead husband. At her entreaties, the Holy Prophet responded, “What shall I do for thee? Tell me, what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thine handmaid hath not any thing in the house, save a pot of oil.”(6) He then ordered her to borrow as many containers as possible from all of her neighbours, a great many. She was to gather all of these vessels, and then shut herself and her sons in their house and begin to pour into the empty containers from the pot of oil she already possessed. As she poured, the oil in the pot was miraculously renewed until every vessel she had borrowed was full. Saint Elisha told her then to sell this oil, which she did. The proceeds were not only sufficient to satisfy her debts, but provided a surplus from which she and her sons could live.
In that regard, we should know that oil – olive oil – was a precious substance in ancient times. It was used as food, as fuel in lamps for light, as an aid in washing and grooming, as a medicine, in ritual anointing, and as offerings to God. its production was, as with so many things at that time, highly labour-intensive. It was therefore, a costly substance, yet a substance required by virtually everyone. Thus, by Saint Elisha’s miracle, done out of love for the pious, the poor widow was provided a genuine treasure.
Like his spiritual Father, Saint Elias, the Holy Prophet Elisha had the power to raise the dead to life, by God’s Grace. Holy Scripture relates that a well-to-do woman of a place called Shunem frequently showed hospitality to Saint Elisha as he passed through her town. So kindly was she towards him, since, she said, he was a man of God, that one day, he asked if he could repay her in any way. She answered that she desired, most of all, a child, but that her husband was now old. The Saint prophesied that soon she would conceive, and indeed she did, and the following spring gave birth to a son. Years later, the son suddenly fell ill and, after a short time, died in the arms of his mother. The woman set out immediately to find the Holy Prophet, and upon finding him begged him to help her. That Saint Elisha did, coming to her house and shutting himself up in the room with her child grew warm, after which, says the Scripture, the child sneezed seven times and open his eyes. The mother was called into the room to receive her precious son, now returned to life. And so we see how the faith of the woman, and the God-given Grace of Holy Elisha, worked a wondrous miracle.
I have mentioned four of the miracles of Saint Elisha, but there are others recorded in the Second Book of Kings, with which faithful Orthodox Christians should familiarize themselves. We read in the thirteenth chapter of the book an amazing story, which tells us that the power of God, exercised through the prophetic ministry of Saint Elisha, did not dissipate with the Saint’s death.
And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet.(7)
The man had been resurrected from the dead, simply by coming into physical contact with the bones of the dead Saint.
Beloved children in Christ, sectarians and, of course, atheists, tell us that our veneration of the relics of the Saints is nothing but vain superstition. However, the biblical story of the Holy Prophet Elisha confirms what the Holy Fathers of the Church have always taught, which is that men and women wholly purified of evil are, consequently, wholly infused with the Holy Spirit in their souls and in their bodies. That power, or we could say, that Grace, continues to manifest itself in the material aspects of the Saint even after the Saint’s death. It manifests itself, as well, in material objects used by, or touched by, the Saint. So it is that the customs of the veneration of the relics of Saint by Orthodox Christians is not “vain superstition,” but rather is validated by the witness of the Holy Bible itself.
(1) II Kings (IV Kings) 2:21-2.
(2) Ibid., 3:11-12.
(3) Ibid., 3:2.
(4) Ibid., 3:13.
(5) Ibid., 3:14.
(6) Ibid., 4:2.
(7) Ibid., 13:20-21.
SERMON SEVENTEEN: HOLY PROPHET AMOS
Like the Holy Fathers of the Christian Era, the Prophets of the Old Testament come from diverse backgrounds. The subjects of our investigation today, the Holy Prophet Amos, was “not a professional prophet but spoke in obedience to a divine vocation.”(1) Prior to his divine calling, he was a “herdsman, and gatherer of sycamore fruit [figs].”(2) The Holy Prophet came from Tekoa, a village not far from Bethlehem, at that time (the eighth century B.C.) within the frontiers of the southern Kingdom of Judah. Saint Nicholas of Zica says of him that he was “of simple origin and life”(3) and points out, regarding this simplicity of background. That “God…does not regard a person by his outward appearance but rather by the purity of his heart.”(4)
Interesting, God called upon the Holy prophet to carry His message outside of his own country, to the rulers and people of the northern kingdom, since that people had fallen upon spiritually evil times. What were these unsatisfactory spiritual conditions?
Firstly, the Kingdom of Israel had expanded its borders and was at peace, its more dangerous adversaries being entangled elsewhere at that moment. Thus, a time of tremendous prosperity was engendered. This was a period of great upward surges in commerce, of an accumulation of enormous wealth, of the adornment of the royal capital with lavish buildings, of floods of imported luxury goods, and of a widespread “fool’s paradise” mentality among all except the poorest of Israelites.
Secondly, that affluence tended significantly to corrode the piety and morals of the kingdom – that is what concerned God and His Holy Prophet. It was believed that the wealth enjoyed at the time signified God’s favour; however, the contrary was the case. God was not pleased. People complied with the minimal requirements of the Hebrew religion, with the outward rituals and the utterance of the correct words, but remembrance of God and His commandments did not penetrate beneath the surface. Many went so far as to dabble in the voluptuous rites of their pagan neighbours, seeing no incongruity in this behaviour – actually a betrayal – so long as they also acknowledged God with routine sacrifices and lavished money on the Israelites shrines. The sensuousness of the religions of adjacent pagan countries was always a temptation to the ancient Israelites, and newfound riches and opulence exacerbated that proclivity. Moreover, in civil life corruption was rampant and the exploitation of the poor a reeking scandal. And so, the Holy Prophet Amos was obedient to God, left Tekoa and his shepherding duties, and journeyed to the Kingdom of Israel.
When men are truly pious and God-loving, they wish to hear truth spoken, even if truth is sometimes painful. When men are irreligious, when they have turned their backs on God, when their piety is all pretense, they crave flattery and prefer pleasant lies to painful truths. Among the latter sort of people, the speaker of painful truths is not only not appreciated, he is despised. So it was with Saint Amos. By his God-inspired words the people of Israel were rudely interrupted in their money grubbing and pleasure seeking. They heard from out of the Holy Prophet’s throat the crack of doom and a message of God’s harsh judgement on a faithless people:
Hear this word that the Lord hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.(5)
Hear ye this word which I take up against you, even a lamentation, O house of Israel. The virgin of Israel is fallen; she shall no more rise: she is forsaken upon her land; there is none to raise her up.(6)
For as much therefore as your reading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them. For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right. Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live: and so the Lord, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as ye have spoken. Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgement in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph. Therefore the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord, saith thus; Wailing shall be in all streets; and they shall say in all the highways, Alas! Alas! And they shall call the husbandman to mourning, and such as are skilful of lamentations to wailing. And in all vineyards shall be wailing: for I will pass through thee, saith the Lord.(7)
Among a people wallowing in a prosperity that they imagined would go on forever, the prophecies of Saint Amos must have sounded like the ravings of a madman. Yet, the prophecies were painful truths, for in a short time the Kingdom of Israel would be conquered and the Israelite people taken into a captivity from which very few would return. However, that was in the future and hence invisible to the blind men of Israel.
The Holy Prophet went to the royal Israelite shrine at Bethel and there confronted the priest Amaziah. Hearing the Saint speak. Amaziah exclaimed that Israel could not bear such words and that he should return at once to his own land of Judah and prophesy there. The Holy Prophet responded that Amaziah’s wife would soon be reduced to harlotry, that his children would “fall by the sword,”(8) and that Amaziah himself would “die in a polluted land.”(9)
There is a tradition which says that in his anger the son of the priest Amaziah struck the Holy Prophet Amos. Prosperity and luxury corrupted the people of the Kingdom of Israel, reducing their devotion to God to the level of empty ritual without inner meaning, without spiritual content, without commitment. That is a spiritual condition we must be especially careful to avoid. Prosperity and riches are not evil in themselves. However, very often, perhaps most often, prosperity and riches trigger spiritual apathy, a psychology of false security, an unwillingness to struggle, an addiction to opulent living, an illusion that one can master one’s own fate without God, and an illusion that one’s merriment will go on forever. Such thinking is both delusional and spiritually fatal, as the people of the Kingdom of Israel discovered.
Americans today, like the Israelites of Saint Amos’s day, enjoy a standard of living that is extraordinarily high. It is not a wonder, therefore, that all of the missteps, all of the blindness, all of the delusions of the people of the Kingdom of Israel are repeated in contemporary American life. Church attendance is falling. Morality and a sense of decency have collapsed. Corruption abounds. People are incapable of moral outrage about the morally outrageous. Apathy and a supine tolerance of evil reign supreme. Will we suffer the judgement of God as did the Israelites? It is certainly that we will, unless we do as the Holy Prophet Amos counsels: “Seek good, and not evil, that ye may live.”(10)
(1) John L. McKenzie, S.J., ‘Dictionary of the Bible, p. 27.
(2) Amos 7:14.
(3) Saint Nikolai Velimirovac. The Prologue of Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. Fr. T . Timothy Tepsic, ed. Fr. Janko Trbovic, the St. Herman of Alaska Serbian Orthodox Monastery, and the St. Paisius Serbian Monastery, Vol. II: July to December (Alhambra, CA: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), p. 614.
(5) Amos 3:1-2.
(6) Ibid., 5:1-2.
(7) Ibid., 5:11-17.
(8) Ibid., 7:17.
(10) Ibid., 5:14.
SERMON EIGHTEEN: HOLY PROPHET HOSEA (OSEE)
Previously we spoke of the holy Prophet Amos who went, at God’s command, from his homeland in the southern Kingdom of Judah to the prosperous northern Kingdom of Israel to warn that country that its betrayal of the true God and its sinful ways would bring down God’s judgement. This week we investigate the Holy Prophet Hosea, who lived at approximately the same time as Saint Amos but who was born in, and a subject of, the northern kingdom. Like his contemporary, he was horrified that the Israelite people had chosen to abandon their covenant with God and, stimulated by high living and the love of luxury, sought to synthesize, to blend together, the true worship of the true God with the grotesquely immoral rites of the false gods of their pagan neighbours. The faithlessness of the Israelites reminds one, in certain ways, of the error of modern ecumenists. In both instances we see an attempt to mix truth with falsehood, which reveals, in both instances and at the very least, a weakened commitment to truth.
The Book of Hosea, rich in a symbolism which soon becomes evident, begins with God instructing the Holy Prophet to take as his wife a woman of highly questionable background, Gomer, described in various editions of Holy Scripture as “a wife of fornications,”(1) “a wife of whoredom,”(2) or “a wife of harlotry”(3) – in other words, a woman of extremely loose morals, a prostitute. Her the Holy Prophet married and produced by her a child. Subsequently, she returned to her evil ways and gave birth to other children, products of her fornication who were given names that symbolized, in some aspects, the renunciation of God by Israel and God’s consequent judgement.
The Holy Prophet, scandalized and humiliated by his wife’s behaviour, at first was determined to chastise her mercilessly, despite the fact that he truly loved her. However, God demanded that he show her mercy and give her another chance to mend her ways. Apparently too the wife had second thoughts about her conduct. As Metropolitan Augoustinos of Phlorina writes, “this woman repented about her adultery, was convinced by the experience that there was no other better man for her than Hosea….”(4)
The symbolism, of course, is crystal clear. As Gomer, the Holy Prophet’s wife, was faithless to her husband and gave every reason for a permanent rejection of her by him, so had the Kingdom of Israel been faithless to God, giving God very reason to reject forever this sinful and fickle people. Nevertheless, despite a multitude of offences so serious that no forebearance was merited, the Holy Prophet was merciful to his wife, who needed only to repent of her sins. Likewise. God was prepared to grant mercy to His people, if only they turned towards Him.
Yet, the slate is not wiped instantly clean; there are still penalties attached to the sinfulness, penalties meant to revivify the soul. Upon taking back his wife, the Holy Prophet deemed it necessary that a period of time pass before she was restored to all of her rights as a wife. The Hebrew people too passed through a period of desolation, to purify them of their waywardness and crush their overweening pride, before they could again become fully restored as the chosen of God. by that necessary means, by that (epitimia, “penance”), in both cases the lessons concerning sin, repentance, and restoration might be indelibly inscribed upon the consciousness of the miscreants.
Some Biblical commentators hold that the story of the Holy Prophet Hosea and his wife is an allegorical fiction, composed by the Saint to illustrate the relationship between the Israelites and God. Others hold that Gomer and her children are historical figures and that the drama of the Holy Prophet and his faithless wife, of her adulterous affairs, of her repentance, and, at her return, of the loving and merciful reception of her by Saint Hosea, is historical, arranged, so to speak, with in the realm of reality by God for allegorical purposes, to symbolize another, greater reality, that of disobedient Israel and its merciful God. Whether the story is allegorical fiction or historical is, however, of minor importance to us. The Book of Hosea is inspired by God, and therefore its lessons are primarily theological, teaching us truths about God and His relationship to us, His creatures. Consequently, we shall leave these historical problems – insoluble in any case – to the historians.
The remainder of the Book of Hosea is composed of prophecies concerning the fate of the Kingdom of Israel, of the destruction of that national entity, and the captivity of its people by the Assyrians, who would move the Israelites en masse out of their homeland into an ignominious exile. That, in the case of the Israelites, would be their punishment for their disobedience. As the Holy Prophet put it so colourfully, “…[T]hey have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind,”(5) and additionally, “Ye have ploughed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies.”(6) Yet, as we shall see, God did not forsake those who love Him.
One of the greatest of sins is the sin of despair, of giving up all hope in God’s mercy. Many people, sunk in a life of sin, come to believe – I should say are inspired by the Evil One to believe – that they are so tarnished with sin that God could not possibly accept their repentance. They seem to believe that God’s mercy is limited, like the mercy of men. The Book of Hosea shows us that we must never despair, since God’s mercy is limitless. How many of us would forgive a spouse like the Holy Prophet’s spouse, who not only strayed from her marital promises, but did so egregiously, giving birth to children through her adultery? I would venture to guess, not many. God, however, is not like fallen men. His love and mercy are infinite. Thus, the worst of sinners has reason to hope, if he will only resolve to turn away from sin and embrace obedience to God. There is no great sin that forever separates us from God, except the failure to believe in God’s infinite mercy and to accept it – to accept it by our obedience.
And let us not be too harsh in our judgement of the people of ancient Israel. The infidelities of the Israelite people of the Holy Prophet Hosea’s time are no worse than our own. In fact, human nature being what it is, they are much the same. We are all like Gomer, happily enveloping our lives in sin. Like her, we agree to be wedded, yet quickly cast aside our promises for the sake of some worldly pleasure or gain. Gomer wed the Holy Prophet, while we, Christians, wed ourselves to Christ and His Church. We fall into the adultery of sin, sin great and small. Perhaps we actually commit adultery or a related sin, or perhaps we do as bad by gossiping or judging a brother or sister in Christ. Perhaps we nurse grudges or harbour hatred against someone, and so fail to obey Christ’s commandment to love our neighbour. Perhaps we lie, cheat, or steal. Whatever our sin, we make our repentance, and are accepted back by Christ. However, we do this not once, but again and again. And each time, we are graciously received back into the fold by Christ. Let us be grateful for Christ’s infinite mercy and infinite love. Let us incorporate that mercy and love into our lives by turning away from sin. Let us resolve to become faithful Orthodox Christians, wedded forever to Christ God and His Holy Church.
(1) Hosea 1:2 (Rheims-Douay Version).
(2) Ibid. (King James Version).
(3) Ibid. (Revised Standard Version).
(4) Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, A Panoramic View of Holy Scripture, Volume One, p. 185.
(5) Hosea 8:7.
(6) Ibid., 10:13.
SERMON NINETEEN: HOLY PROPHET OBADIAH (ABADIAS)
Among the prophetical books of the Old Testament, the shortest is that of the Holy Prophet Obadiah which is composed of one chapter of only twenty-one verses. Practically nothing about this Saint is mentioned in his own book and there are only vague clues as to when he lived. Consequently, Biblical scholars have developed several theories. One theory places in the ninth century before Christ, while another finds evidence that he lived three hundred years later. The Church Fathers, Saintly Orthodox writers, and Holy Tradition seems to favour the earlier date and thus Saint Obadiah is likely a contemporary of the Holy Prophet Elias, living in the ninth century B.C.
Virtually the entirety of this small book concerns prophecy about the Kingdom of Edom. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the wayward twin brother of the Holy Patriarch Jacob, and were thus related by blood to the Hebrew people. Their kingdom, an extremely mountainous, rocky land, stretched in a relatively narrow band from just south of the Dead Sea to the port of Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra, that amazing and beautiful city carved out of rock, the ruins of which are a major tourist attraction in that part of the world, was originally an Edomite settlement. Moreover, this was a prosperous country, despite the barrenness of the land, because Edom sat astride several of the ancient trade routes. Vast wealth poured through their towns and cities, and they were careful to extract a share of that wealth.
An exceptionally proud and warlike people, the Edomites had long before sunk into paganism, and there was a definite enmity between them and the Hebrew people. When the people of Israel returned from exile in Egypt, the Edomites had refused to allow them to pass through their territory, a fact never forgotten by the Hebrews. They took pleasure in the difficulties of the Hebrew people, viewing them as ancient enemies, whereas they were in truth brethren. King Saul, the Holy Prophet-King David, and others had fought them in battle. Allying themselves with the Philistines, the Edomites participated in the sacking of Jerusalem during the reign of King Jehoram of Judah. Finally, in battle and as conquerors, they had a reputation for pitilessness and cruelty.
As wenoted, this was a proud and warlike people, believing firmly that , since they lived in the rocky fastness of dry, inhospitable mountains, they could never be conquered. However, Saint Obadiah prophesied a message from the Lord that Edomite pride and power would be tested, and that they would fail. The Saint writes:
The pride of thine hearts hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down t o the ground? Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and through thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.(1)
Edom, despite the savagery of its warriors, apparently enjoyed some renown for the wise men it produced. Eliphaz the Temanite, one of the acquaintances of the Holy Prophet Job who visited him in his time of distress, was just such an Edomite wise man. But this renown would not save them: “Shall I not in that day, saith the Lord, even destroy the wise men of Edom….”(2) The words of Saint Obadiah continue, foretelling the end of the Edomite people: “…[A]nd there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the Lord hath spoken it.”(3)
The prophecies of Saint Obadiah were fulfilled over time. The Edomite were drive out of their country by the Nabataeans five centuries before the birth of Christ, living thereafter to the south of Judah in a region known as Idumaea. Two centuries before Christ they were converted by force to Judaism and, within a few more centuries, merged wholly with the Jews, losing their unique identity and thereby disappearing utterly from the historical record.(4)
Now, there are Biblical scholars who decry what they read in the Book of Obadiah, regarding it as merely an outburst of intense nationalism. There is an unfair judgement for two reasons. The first reason is that, whatever, “nationalism” is expressed by the Holy Prophet Obadiah, or for that matter by any other Holy Prophet, is based not on ethnicity but on faithfulness to the true God. That is the overriding factor in all of the prophetical books. As we have seen, many of the Prophets are more often ready to condemn their own people for wandering from the straight and narrow path of true belief and true worship than they are to condemn other nations. Their attitude is never one of “my country right or wrong,” but rather “my country, but only if she remains righteous.” Nationalism, in the modern sense, is never the essence of Biblical prophecy.
The second reason is that beneath the Holy Prophet’s expression of God’s displeasure with the Edomites because of certain activities or events in history, which is the obvious, outward meaning and purpose of this book of Holy Writ, there exists another less obvious, inward meaning and purpose in this book, and that is to instruct the People of God – us – in moral teaching. The teaching in this instance, repeated often throughout the Holy Scriptures, is that God detests the sins of pride, the source of all sin, the very “beginning of sin”(5) in the words of the Book of Sirach.
The Edomites regarded their position, in their mountain fortresses and armed with their famed military prowess, as invulnerable. They therefore thought that they needed no God to rely on and no God to tell them what to do, but were reliant on themselves, on their aforementioned location and skills. From that position of strength, they believed that they could commit any terrible act, even to their brothers the Hebrews, and escape judgement or vengeance by swiftly retreating into their mountains and caves. But their faith in themselves was misplaced. The day of reckoning came, just as the Holy Prophet Obadiah warned. Their pride brought them no lasting benefit, but only oblivion.
Saint Gregory Palamas tells us that “pride is yoked with callous behaviour, as humility is with compassion.”(6) We see this perfectly illustrated by the example of the Edomites. They were proud and they were callous.
We Orthodox Christians must cultivate the virtues of humility and of compassion since we are followers of Christ, who exemplified these and all other virtues. And, so long as we make Christ God the principal focus of our lives, knowing that all that we are, and all that we need, and all that we possess, come from Him, since we are mere creatures while He is the Creator, then we avoid the pride of the Edomites. Furthermore, if we crush pride, we will not think it acceptable callously to harm our neighbour by our actions or by our words, we will not think it acceptable to ignore God and forget our absolute reliance on Him.
Pride is the killer that kills all our hopes for future life. In contrast, the God of the Holy Prophet Obadiah and of all of the Holy Prophets, Christ God Himself, by His example, is our remedy.
(1) Obadiah 1:3-4.
(2) Ibid., 1:18.
(3) Ibid., 1:18.
(4) The infamous King Herod the Great, the murderer of the Holy Innocents, was of Idumaeam ancestry.
(5) Wisdom of Sirach 10:13.
(6) Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies,ed. and trans. Christopher Veniamin and the Monastery of St. John the Baptist (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), p. 32.
SERMON TWENTY: HOLY PROPHET ISAIAH (ESAIAS)
The Holy Prophet Isaiah is considered one of the four major Prophets, because of the length of his prophetical book, one of the longest in the Holy Bible. The Holy Prophet was born to a family of the aristocracy. In fact, he was the nephew of Amaziah, the King of Judah. He was also highly educated, as is evident from the beauty and refined nature of his writing style. Saint Isaiah was born in 760 B.C. in Jerusalem, the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah. He married a pious woman, whom he calls “the prophetes,”(1) who bore him two sons.
The prophetic ministry of Saint Isaiah lasted for more than a half century, a period which saw the prophecies of earlier prophets, who had foretold the destruction of Israel, come to pass. The period in which the Holy Prophet lived is one of tremendous political complexities and upheavals, with the rise of a powerful and bellicose Assyrian Empire along with quarrels and actual military conflict between the two Hebrew kingdoms.
The Assyrians attacked and sought to absorb Syria and Israel. The Kingdom of Judah was then invited to join in an alliance with Syria and Israel against their enemy, the Assyrians, but refused the offer. Hoping to replace Judah’s uncooperative monarch, Syria and Israel then attacked Judah, causing much destruction. Judah entered into an alliance with Assyria, to defeat Syria and Israel, which was done against the advise of the Holy prophet Isaiah. As a result, the capital of the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and victory by Judah’s Assyrian ally achieved.
However, as Saint Isaiah foresaw, the victory came at a high cost. Henceforth, Judah became a vassal state, a protectorate of the Assyrian Empire, without genuine independence and compelled to pay a monetary tribute to the Assyrian overlords. Worse yet, Judah was compelled to open temples to the pagan gods of Assyria. The Judaean King, Hezekiah, entertained the possibility of regaining independence by an alliance with Egypt, but was told by saint Isaiah to trust God and to enter into no alliances with pagans. That the king did, allying himself with God alone. He provoked the Assyrians by withholding the payment of tribute and, when they invaded, defeated the Assyrian army, gaining a respite for his beleaguered nation.
In the religious sphere, the period witnessed, as was mentioned in earlier discussions, an ongoing tendency on the part of the Hebrews of both kingdoms – but especially the Kingdom of Israel – towards syncretism, that is, a strong inclination to blend the worship of the God of the Hebrews, the true God, with the scandalous rites of the false gods of pagan neighbours.
Suffice it to say that when the King of Judah followed the Holy Prophet’s counsel, the kingdom was blessed. When he failed to listen to the Prophet of God, evil descended upon Judah. He was doubtless one of the wisest of the wise, which is why Saint John Chrysostomos speaks of “the ocean of Isaiah’s wisdom.”(2)
Saint Isaiah is revered by Christians for his prophesying the coming of Christ Jesus. To him God revealed the future, a future of salvation for Hebrew and Gentile alike. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah, we read, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall cal his name Immanuel.”(3) This obviously refers to the Most Holy Theotokos, who will bear the God-Man Christ Jesus. The name (“ ‘Immanu’el”) means “God with us.” It is a remarkable passage, that the impossible will, by God’s Grace, come to pass, that a Son will be born to a Virgin Mother and that the Son, Christ Jesus, the God-Man, will be Immanuel in that He will bring the true God in the Person of Himself into the midst of fallen mankind.
Two chapters later, the Holy Prophet writes:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God. The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.(4)
Here is another amazing prophecy, that a child, a son, will be born who will be called “The mighty God, The everlasting Father.” No earthly Messiah is actually “The mighty God” Himself, No earthly Messiah is “everlasting” – only God is “The everlasting Father.”
That Isaiah’s prophecies refer specifically to Christ Jesus is evident from passages in the eleventh chapter:
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots: and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears: but with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.(5)
The rod, stem, and branch refer to Christ’s ancestry, His family tree, which is traced back to Jesse, the father of the Holy Prophet-King David, both father and son distinguished ancestors of Jesus Christ. Christ will be the judge of mankind and will, in the Eternal Kingdom, right all of the wrongs and injustices of earthly, temporal life. moreover, a few verses later the Holy Prophet writes, “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.”(6) Christ Jesus, again the descendant of Jesse who fathered a great king, will be the hope not only of the Hebrews, but also of the Gentiles. Salvation, in its potential, will be open to all, and the God of the Hebrews will be recognized as the God of all men.
The Holy Prophet, seeing into the future, spoke of the suffering of Christ for our sake:
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgement: and who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.(7)
Only Christ was despised and rejected; only He bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was wounded for our transgressions, was bruised for our iniquities, and healed us with his stripes; only He went as a lamb to the slaughter and for our transgressions was stricken. Yet, the Holy Prophet Isaiah wrote these words eight hundred years before Christ was born.
The Holy Prophet Isaiah inspired the King of Judah, Hezekiah, to institute a reform of religion in Judah, wherein the worship of the true God was restored and that of the idols banished from the land. The reforms were not entirely successful, but at least the good king made the attempt. Upon his death, King Hezekiah was succeeded by his son, Manasseh, who, in the thrall of the pagan-minded nobility, promptly rolled back his father-s reforms and all but banished the worship of the true God from the land of Judah.
Needless to say, the Holy Prophet Isaiah protested loudly, so much so that the king and the ruling classes became intolerant of his words of truth. Tradition holds that the Holy Prophet was martyred by order of King Manasse, by being sawn asunder, that is, cut in half was a saw. Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Hebrews, writes of Saint Isaiah, among others, when he refers to the persecuted Holy Prophets, whom he extols for their faith and courage, that they “were stoned, …were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword….”(8) The world, says Saint Paul, is not worthy of such men.
Let us end today with the words of that peerless homilist of our own time, Metropolitan Augoustinos of Phlorina, who writes that the voice of the Holy Prophet Isaiah “is heard uninterruptedly through the centuries. A voice that calls sinners not to hesitate, but to run and to kiss the all-immaculate feet of the Crucified One, the Saviour and Redeemer. Listen to it.”(9)
(1) Isaiah 8:3.
(2) St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies, Vol III: Homilies on the Obscurity of the Old Testament; Homilies on the Psalms, trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), p. 8.
(3) Isaiah 7:14.
(4) Ibid., 9:6.
(5) Ibid., 11:1-5.
(6) Ibid., 11:10,
(7) Ibid., 53;3-8.
(8) Hebrews 11:37.
(9) Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, A Panoramic View of Holy Scripture, Volume One, p. 254.
SERMON TWENTY ONE: HOLY PROPHET MICAH (MICHAIAS)
The Holy Prophet Micah, a contemporary of Saint Isaiah whom we investigated last week, was born in Moresheth, a village in the southwest region of Judah, about twenty-five miles from Jerusalem. He is considered one of the minor Prophets, in that his book is relatively short. We know nothing more about the personal life of Saint Micah except that he was buried in his home village. We know that since, during the reign of the Emperor Saint Theodosios the Great, a Church was built over his tomb.
Like his contemporary, this Holy Prophet clearly prophesied the coming of Christ:
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whosegoings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.(1)
Let us examine the significance of this passage more carefully.
The Holy Prophet speaks of “Bethlehem Ephratah.” Some Biblical scholars believe that “Ephratah” may be an older name for Bethlehem or the name of a village in those days adjacent to Bethlehem. But that is unimportant. The important thing is that from the insignificant town of Bethleham, Saint Micah is saying, a ruler in Israel will come forth. And not only a ruler, but a ruler whose activities have been “from everlasting,” that is, from eternity. Since only God is “from everlasting,” this is clearly a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, who was born in a humble cave in the town of Bethlehem eight centuries after the time of the Holy Prophet.
In his writings, the Holy Prophet Micah is concerned with bringing the Hebrew people to true and complete repentance, so as to avert the looming disaster of foreign conquest and enslavement. In the case of the northern kingdom, Israel, disaster was not averted, its capital falling in 722 B.C.
The conquered people of Israel, composed of ten of the original twelve tribes of the Hebrew people, were taken into captivity and dispersed to other regions of the Assyrian Empire, and thus exiled from their native country. Except perhaps for a handful, the members of the ten tribes disappeared into the mists of history, never to be heard of again. Most likely, the survivors of the captivity and exile were assimilated into the local populations, losing their ethnic identity after a few generations. The Holy Prophet Micah lived to witness these catastrophes and, striving to save the people of Judah from a similar fate, chastised the ruling class – the nobility and the sacerdotal establishment most particularly – for its shocking greed and love of opulence and for allowing Judah to stray from God’s path. Should the Judaean people fail to repent, he prophesied, Judah too would fall: Zion would be “ploughed as a field”(2) and “Jerusalem shall become heaps,”(3) he writes.
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?(4)
The Hebrew people, those of both kingdoms, had fallen into decadence. They were vaguely aware of the old moral law, but they had become so injured to sin, to the “good life” of materialism and greed and the pampering of the bodily appetites, to haughtiness, and to the merciless grinding down of social inferiors, that they found themselves almost incapable of turning around. They had come to believe that God was sufficiently placated by an outward show of religiosity, by “going through the motions,” as they say, by burning offerings offered without sincerity and genuine love of God. That moral flabbiness, the Holy Prophet warned, was not good enough. It was not only not good enough, it was an insult to God. Consequently, God would, without question, bring His wrath down upon so impious and stubbornly wicked a people. More lamentable still was that God asked so little of them: justice, mercy, humility, and faithfulness to God and His commandments.
As is the case with many of the Old Testament Holy Prophets, social justice is a recurrent theme in Saint Micah’s writings. The Hebrew people were chosen of God, a special people, an extended family, so to speak. And while there were differing orders, differing social and economic classes, among the Hebrews as among all peoples, the fact that the, the Hebrews as among all peoples, the fact that they, the Hebrews, were all the children of God in a unique sense demanded that they care for one another and that the distress of the weak and poor be mitigated to some significant degree.
However, in the unbridled revelry and the scramble for wealth of that time, the contrary had become the rule and the poor forgotten. God, the Holy Prophet writes, would not long abide such conditions. He says;
Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! When the morning is light, they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. And they covet fields, and take them by violence; and houses, and take them away: so they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.(5)
It is evident that at that time there was little justice and mercy among the “high and mighty” of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah. Men, the Holy Prophet writes, lay awake in their beds at night and connived evil against weaker neighbours. And at the break of days, they put their plots into practice, because they possessed the raw power to do so. They robbed the weak of their property and homes, maltreated them ruthlessly, and stripped them even of their dignity as men. God, says the Holy Prophet, will bring a terrible judgement against people who do such things.
In our studies of the Holy Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, we look upon the Holy Prophet Micah most especially as the Prophet of justice, mercy, and humility (although all the Prophets were that to a large extent). These virtues were grossly abused in the period in which the Saint lived, as they are grossly abused today.
In our time, the economic distance between the rich and the poor is growing at an alarming rate and callousness towards the less advantaged increasing. A dying middle class is squeezed into ever-tighter financial circumstances by the rich and powerful and their minions in government. Dishonest, ruthless ,and immoral business practices are the norm. Lying is a national pastime, and honour an obsolete and faintly ridiculous notion. Even in Church circle, one sometimes sees an “end justifies the means” attitude about truth, honour, justice, and morality. Religion, insofar as it is still observed at all, is mostly a phenomenon of externality, insincere and not of the heart. In short, the conditions just mentioned in the twenty-first century of the Christian Era resemble conditions of Saint Micah’s world, in the eighth century B.C. Since God’s judgment is imminent, let us all be certain that we do not participate in these objectionable things. Let us remember the Holy Prophet’s words all our lives: “…[W]hat doth the lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”(6)
(1) Micah 5:2.
(2) Ibid., 3:12.
(4) Ibid., 6:6-8.
(5) Ibid., 2:1-2.
(6) Ibid., 6:8.
SERMON TWENTY TWO: HOLY PROPHET NAHUM (NAOUM)
The Holy Prophet Nahum lived in the seventh century before Christ. Like so many of the Holy Prophets, we know next to nothing about Saint Nahum’s life. since, in the first verse of the Book of Nahum we find the words “The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite,”(1) we do know that he came from a place called Elkosh, a town which Saint Jerome tells us was in the region of Galilee.
The greatest city in the world at the time of the Holy Prophet Nahum was Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which is located in what we today know as the country of Iraq, near the modern city of Mosul. The rulers of the Assyrian Empire spared no expense on their capital. It had walls a hundred feet high, walls so wide that three chariots could be driven abreast along their tops. Palaces and public buildings more richly decorated and more beautiful than any in the world adorned its wide avenues and squares. Canals and aqueducts brought the city an abundance of water that, in the Near East’s desert climate, made the city a veritable paradise. Its location next to the Tigris River and along one of the ancient world’s key trade routes made it extremely wealthy. In short, everything that a great city could possess in that age Nineveh possessed. It was the very epitome of worldly grandeur.
Yet, it was also the most sinful city in the world. As we have said before, the religious rites of the pagan nations of the Near East were notoriously and shockingly sensual and that made for a society that was thoroughly saturated in sensuality. Moreover, the Assyrians built their empire through the use of ruthless terror and forced resettlement, and atop vast mounds of human bodies. Just as Attila the Hun would be called “the scourge of God” in the fifth century of the Christian Era, so the feared and hated Assyrians were considered likewise in the seventh century before Christ. Numberless were the people suffering under the heel of this savage oppressor.
You will remember that when we explored the life of the Holy Prophet Jonah before, God was contemplating the destruction of Nineveh because of her sinfulness and sent His Prophet to that city to preach repentance. The city did repent and was thus spared of God. However, a century and a half later the city had returned to its old ways. Therefore, the entirety of the Book of Nahum – a short book of fewer than fifty verses – is taken up with the prophesying of Nineveh’s fall and destruction in punishment for its incomparable and boundless wickedness. Let us sample a few passages from the pen of this Holy Prophet.
God, says the Holy Prophet, is a jealous God. that means that God loves his faithful and will not permit anyone or anything to come between Himself and that which He loves. Those who do come between Him and that which He loves will pay a terrible penalty. God is also the absolute Master of the Earth and of all creation; his power is infinite:
God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers…. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein.(2)
As God is Ruler and Master of all. He demands the obedience of man, His Highest creation, and will rebuke the stubbornly disobedient and wicked: “Who can stand before his indignation? And who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.”(3)
Nineveh, which the Holy Prophet calls “the bloody city,” has been unrepentant, and therefore disaster will befall it with certainty:
Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery; the prey departeth not; the noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, and of the prancing horses, and of the jumping chariots. The horsemen lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon the corpses: because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts. Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts; and I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame. And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a gazingstock. And it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say, Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her? Whence shall I seek comforters for thee?(4)
So did the Holy Prophet Nahum vividly prophesy the dreadful fate of the city of Nineveh, which imagined itself an impregnable fortress, the capital of an unassailably powerful empire, would, said Saint Nahum, be reduced to total ignominy and wretchedness. Nineveh, whose greatness and wealth were built upon the corpses of, and loot from, many subject peoples, and whose hedonistic pleasures and pastimes were seemingly without end, would be, he said, obliterated and disappear from the face of the earth. And so did it come to pass, exactly as the Holy Prophet wrote.
In 612 B.C., the Babylonians, in alliance with the Medes, conquered the great city, destroyed it so utterly that only a mound of rubble remained. So complete was the destruction that men forgot even where precisely the city was located, its ruins rediscovered only in the nineteenth century, near Mosul, twenty-five hundred years after its destruction. The fall of Nineveh and of the Assyrian Empire sent shockwaves throughout the ancient world and brought rejoicing to all of the people Assyria had oppressed.
Some critics regard the Book of Nahum as a glorification of vengeance and nationalism, holding that the Holy Prophet is unworthy of his title. They are mistaken. The Holy Prophet Nahum prophesied what God had in store for an immensely cruel and evil people, demonstrating, as the Biblical scholar Father John McKenzie writes, “a principle of Israelite belief [that God] does not permit the wicked and godless oppressor to survive; it was a theme worthy of an Israelite prophet….”(5) The Book, says the same scholar, “is one of the most powerfully written compositions of the Old Testament” and reaches “a high poetic level.”(6) Moreover, we receive much profitable teaching from this Holy Prophet.
Saint Nahum writes, for example, that “The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.”(7) Those who trust Him and follow His commandments need have no fear of His wrath. We learn, in addition, that what appears so permanent here on this earth, like the city of Nineveh and, for that matter, all of the works of man, are not at all permanent, but can be reduced practically to nothingness in a very short span of time. Finally we learn that, as Saint Paul wrote centuries later. “God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he shall reap.”(8) The Assyrian Empire mocked God with its appalling sin and sowed death and destruction wherever its armies marched. It reaped exactly what it had sown.
(1) Nahum 1:1.
(2) Ibid., 1:2-5.
(3) Ibid., 1:6.
(4) Ibid., 3:1-7.
(5) John L. Mc Kenzie, S.J., Dictionary of the Bible, p. 603.
(7) Nahum 1:7.
(8) Galatians 6:7.
SERMON TWENTY THREE: HOLY PROPHET JEREMIAH (IEREMIAS)
The Holy Prophet Jeremiah lived during the second half of the seventh and the first half of the sixth century before the birth of Christ. He was born in Anathoth, not far from Jerusalem, to a priestly family. At the time of the beginning of this Saint’s ministry, the northern Kingdom of Israel was only an historical memory, having fallen before the invading Assyrians in the previous century, and the Kingdom of Judah was in precarious vassalage to the mighty Assyrian Empire. These were indeed turbulent times. Saint Jeremiah lived to witness the destruction of the seemingly indestructible Assyrian Empire and the rise of a new power, the Babylonian Empire. And, he lived to see the fall of the Kingdom of Judah, his own homeland, to the Babylonians.
In the year 626 B.C., God spoke to the Holy Prophet, saying,
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold , I cannot speak: for I am a child. But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. Then the Lord puts forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.(1)
The Holy Prophet, sanctified, says the Holy Scripture, even before his birth, obeyed God and, in so doing, entered upon a life of great suffering and disappointment, each succeeding sorrow greater than its predecessor, each heaped upon the last into a great mountain of grief, and each engendering such pain as to tempt the Saint to despondency. In short, the Holy Prophet’s ministry, from the standpoint of this life and of the world, appeared a wholly thankless task.
The people of Judah, like their co-religionists in Israel, were by and large, no longer faithful to the God of their forefathers, but instead imitated their pagan neighbours by offering sacrifices to false idols. And, since a people’s religious belief and practice dictate their way of life, the apostasy of Judah was intertwined with a general neglect of God’s moral law. Making matters worse, the leadership classes of Judah , the nobility and the priestly class, justified their apostasy and their compromise by declaring that it was necessary for political reasons, to “save” the Kingdom of Judah, when in fact, God Himself had promised deliverance through faithfulness to truth.
Beginning his prophetic ministry in his home town of Anathoth, he demanded the people’s repentance, telling them that without sincere and genuine repentance, and a return to the covenant of God, the Kingdom of Judah would fall an the Holy city of Jerusalem would be laid waste. The people of Anathoth were unappreciative of such distressing prophecy, disturbing, as it did, their tranquillity and their enjoyment of the “good life.” Soon, plots were hatched in Anathoth to murder the Holy Prophet, and so silence hi permanently. Saint Jeremiah was forced, therefore, to leave the place of his birth. Going to the capital, Jerusalem, he hoped there to find a more receptive audience.
If anything, the prophetic utterances of the Saint were even less accepted in Jerusalem, threatening, in the judgement of the rulers, not only the people’s equanimity, but endangering political stability and the political establishment. When the son of the High Priest of the Temple heard the Holy Prophet’s words prophesying the Temple’s destruction, he “smote Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the high gate of Benjamin, which was by the house of the Lord.”(2) (“Stocks,” for those unfamiliar with his word, were wooden structures, erected in public places, in which a person’s hands and feet, or hands and head, were confined, so that the person was exposed to public ridicule and assault.) Despite such persecution, Saint Jeremiah was unrelenting, continuing his ministry and refusing to soften his words.
Holy Scripture relates that, when the Holy Prophet spoke in the Temple of the Temple’s destruction and of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, the priests and the false prophets demanded his execution for blasphemy: “Then spake the priests and the prophets unto the princes and to all the people, saying, This man is worthy to die; for he hath prophesied against this city, as ye have heard with your eyes.”(3) The Saint responded,
The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all the words that ye have heard. Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you. As for me, behold, I am in your hands: do with me a seemeth good and meet unto you.(4)
Remembering earlier Holy Prophets who had pronounced unpopular words, the judaean princes relented and freed the Saint. He continued his prophecies, however, ot the fury of the king, the nobility, and the priests, who followed, as before, their policy of compromise, who failed to lead the Judaean people along the paths of truth and righteousness, and who embraced a feckless devotion to pleasure and extravagance.
Finally, the Babylonians, angered by various provocative acts of the King of Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem in 588 B.C., after lengthy military campaigns. In July 586 B.C., Jerusalem fell before the Babylonian onslaught. The city was burnt, and the city walls and the Temple levelled to the ground. The last Judaean King, Zedekiah, was captured, forced to watch the execution of his sons, and was then blinded and hauled off in chains to the Babylonian prison. The judaean nobles, military leaders, and clergy were either executed or sent into the oblivion of exile. Most of the remaining inhabitants of Judah were sent into exile in Babylon. The catastrophe of which the Holy prophet Jeremiah had spoken for so long had come to pass.
Curiously, the Babylonian conquerors left the Holy Prophet unmolested. Since he had predicted their victory, they mistakenly regarded him as an ally. Saint Jeremiah, heartbroken over the face of his people, continued for a while to live among the small remnant of Judaeans in and around the ruined capital. These were mostly the dregs, the lowest social stratum of Judah, considered by the Babylonians not worth the trouble to escort into exile. Later, he was taken captive to Egypt, he was saddened to discover that here too, his people were inclined towards hedonism and the worship of pagan deities. His defense of truth and denunciation of the debauchery of pagan worship resulted at last in his martyrdom, by stoning, at the hands of his own expatriate countrymen.
There is, as was mentioned earlier, a deep melancholy running throughout the writings of the Holy Prophet Jeremiah, both in the book bearing his name and, of course, in his Book of Lamentations. We read passage such as “Cursed be the day wherein I was born”(5) and expressions of anguish such as “Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed?”(6) Because he had been given the gift of prophecy and could see the future of his native land, which he obviously loved, and the shame of foreign exile for his people; because God had placed the burden upon him of telling his people of their coming doom; and because the leaders and the people of Judah were disinclined to listen, there is naturally a morose quality to the Saint’s writings. Not for nothing is he sometimes called “the Weeping Prophet.”
Father john Mc Kenzie writes of the fall of Judah:
Was this the end of the people of the Lord? Was it for this that the Lord had led Abram out of Mesopotamia, and their fathers out of Egypt? Was it for this that He had smitten the Canaanites, and chosen David as their king? Was all their glorious history, the history of the deeds of the Lord, to reach its climax in this inglorious failure? These are the questions which troubled the men of Israel, [and] which wrenched the soul of a great patriot like Jeremiah.(7)
Yet, God told him that his commission was not only to “root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down,”(8) but also “to build, and to plant.”(9) His words, though often words of doom, constantly reiterated that salvation could be achieved by returning to the ancient covenant of God’s people, the covenant made with the Holy Patriarch Abraham a millennium and a half before, and to God’s commandments. And so it was that while God allowed the conquest and exile of the people of Judah. He did not abandon them. The Holy Prophet’s commission to build and to plant referred to his inspired words. Those words the people of Judah would recall during their captivity. Properly sobered by suffering, they would discover in the words of Saint Jeremiah the promise of a return from exile, and the foundations of a new beginning.
(1) Jeremiah 1:5-9.
(2) Ibid., 20:2.
(3) Ibid., 26:11 (33:11, LXX).
(4) Ibid.,26:1214 (33;12-14 LXX).
(5) Ibid., 20:14.
(6) Ibid., 15:18.
(7) John L. McKenzie, S.J., The Two-Edged Sword, p. 213.
(8) Jeremiah, 1:10.
SERMON TWENTY FOUR: HOLY PROPHET BARUCH (BAROUCH)
The holy Prophet Baruch was the faithful disciple of and scribe to – we would today say “secretary to” – the Holy Prophet Jeremiah, whose life and works we examined. We know precious little of this Prophet’ personal life, except that his father’s name was Neriah and that he was of noble birth, his brother serving as an important official in the royal court of Judah. He is the author of the Book of Baruch, a book of Holy Scripture rejected by the sectarians and, thus, not found in their renditions of the Holy Bible. However, since it is part of the ancient Canon of Holy Scripture accepted by the early Church, of which the Orthodox Church is the direct continuation, it is found in Holy Bibles produced under the Orthodox Christian auspices. The Book of Baruch was written by the Holy Prophet during his exile in Babylon and was meant to be read by the survivors of the catastrophe of the Babylonian conquest, to hearten them as to the future.
The first port ion of the Book of Baruch is a lengthy prayer of repentance to God, a repentance heartfelt after the destruction of the two kingdoms of the Hebrew people and the shame of conquest and exile. The first chapter speaks of the intense weeping, fasting, and prayer that prevailed among the suffering exiled people. Interestingly, and appropriately, there are words of prayer for the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, and his son, Belshazzar, that their lives may be long. It is said that by God’s will the Hebrews now live under the shadow of that king and of his son, and therefore they pray that since they will serve these monarchs many days, they will “find favour in their sight.”(1) Following is the expression of the people’s repentance, a thoroughgoing confession of their sinfulness:
…[W]e have sinned before the Lord, and have not hearkened unto the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in the commandments that he gave us openly: since the day that the Lord brought our forefathers out of the land of Egypt, unto this present day, we have been disobedient unto the Lord our God, and we have been negligent in not hearing his voice. Wherefore the evils cleaved unto us, and the curse…. Nevertheless we have not hearkened unto the voice of the Lord our God, according unto all the words of the prophets, whom he sent unto us: but every man followed the imagination of his own wicked heart, to serve strange gods, and to do evil in the sight of the Lord our God.(2)
At last, says the Holy Prophet Baruch, the people understand the source of their troubles, that they have been reduced to utter degradation by their disobedience to God and love of high living, and by their obstinate refusal to listen to the voice of God, spoken to them through the mouths of the Holy Prophets.
Therefore the Lord hath made good his word, which he pronounced against us, and against our judges that judged Israel and against our kings, and against our princes, and against the men of Israel and Juda, to bring upon us great plagues, such as never happened under the whole heaven, as it came to pass in Jerusalem, according to the things that were written in the law of Moses; that a man should eat the flesh of his own son, and the flesh of his own daughter. Moreover he hath delivered them to be in subjection to all the kingdoms that are round about us, to be as a reproach and desolation among all the people round about, where the Lord hath scattered them. thus we were cast down, and not exalted, because we have sinned against the Lord our God, and have not been obedient unto his voice. To the Lord our God appertaineth righteousness: but unto us and to our fathers open shame, as appeareth this day.(3)
Following the acknowledged of sinfulness and that God’s punishment was merited, there is a prayer for deliverance:
Let thy wrath from us: for we are but a few among the heathen, where thou hast scattered us. Hear our prayers, O Lord, and our petitions, and deliver us for thine own sake, and give us favour in the sight of them which have led us away: that all the earth may know that thou art the Lord our God, because Israel and his posterity is called by thy name. O Lord, look down from thine holy house, and consider us: bow down thine ear, O Lord, to hear us.(4)
And, in the following chapter:
O Lord Almighty, God of Israel, the soul in anguish the troubled spirit, crieth unto thee. Hear, O Lord, and have mercy; for thou art merciful: and have pity upon us, because we have sinned before thee. For thou endures for ever, and we perish utterly. O Lord Almighty, thou God of Israel, hear now the prayers of the dead Israelites, and of their children, which have sinned before thee, and not hearkened unto the voice of thee their God: for the which cause these plagues cleave unto us. Remember not the iniquities of our forefathers: but think upon thy power and thy name now at this time. For thou are the Lord our God, and thee, O Lord, will we praise.(5)
Following the prayer for deliverance and for God’s mercy, there is a panegyric on wisdom, and following that, an assurance that, in God’s good time, the people of God, if they repent, will return home and escape bondage.(6)
Be of good cheer, O my children, cry unto the Lord, and he will deliver you from the power and hand of the enemies. For my hope is in the Everlasting, that he will save you; and joy is come unto me from the Holy One, because of the mercy which shall soon come unto you from the Everlasting our Saviour.(6)
The events related by the Book of Baruch befell the people of Judah almost twenty-six hundred years ago. We are nevertheless edified and profited by reading this work, since it conveys some elementary lessons to us about true repentance.
For repentance to be sincere, the sinner must crush his inward pride. He cannot stand with head held high before his God, but must bend the back of sorrow and shame for his sins. He must acknowledge his sins, fully, without self-justification, without alibis, without excuses. He must say, in essence, “I am the worst of sinners, deserving of whatever punishment God chooses to inflict upon me.” Having abased himself before his God and Master for his infidelities, the sinner will then praise God, resolve to correct his life henceforth, and, with tears of regret, beg for mercy. The sinner does not achieve salvation by any merit he has earned, but achieves it only through God’s mercy, God’s pity, which is a product of God’s infinite love.
It is no coincidence that, in Orthodox Christianity, we believers cry “Lord, have mercy” endlessly, without respite. The words “Lord, have mercy” are woven throughout all of our public services and our private prayers. No other words are said or chanted more often than these. That is simply because, in both the Old and New Testaments, the formula for repentance, for turning away from sin and winning the favour of God, is identical. We never surrender to hopelessness, but beg God’s mercy in any and all circumstances, whether we be in danger spiritually or physically. Having accomplished salvation by God’s Grace, we – to quote the Holy Prophet Baruch once again – are lead by God “with joy in the light of his glory with the mercy and righteousness that cometh from him.”(7)
(1) Baruch 1:12.
(2) Ibid., 1:17-22.
(3) Ibid., 2:1-6.
(4) Ibid., 2:13-16.
(5) Ibid., 3:1-6.
(6) Ibid., 4:21-22.
(7) Ibid., 5:9.
SERMON TWENTY FIVE: HOLY PROPHET ZEPHANIAH (SOPHONIAS)
The Holy Prophet Zephaniah was of royal blood, a descendant of King Hezekiah of Judah. His prophetic ministry dates from the second half of the seventh century B.C. The Saint prophesied at approximately the same time as the Holy Prophet Jeremiah. He centred his activities in Jerusalem, during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, a good man whose efforts to restore his people to true belief and true worship, and banish paganism from his kingdom, he supported.
You will note that with certain of our Holy Prophets, especially now that we are dealing with the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah, we do not proceed forward in chronological fashion but go back a short distance from time to time, since the lives of several of these men overlap. The kernel of the prophetic messages of these prophets whose lives overlap is also quite similar, since they were all dealing with the same looming cataclysm brought on by the abandonment by the Hebrew people of their closeness to God and the inexorable advance of foreign conquerors. So, since the Holy Prophet Zephaniah’s message differs little from that of some of the holy men we have already discussed, I will today focus on just a few verses from the first chapter of the Book of Zephaniah, because they are so relevant to our own efforts as Orthodox Christians in the world.
Historians tells us that King Josiah achieved much success during his reign in eradicating pagan worship in Judah, yet it stubbornly persisted in certain places. The Holy Prophet, enlightened by God by his genuine sanctity, writes as if he is quoting God, Who, he says, will not tolerate any corruption or idolatry among His people:
I will also stretch out mine hand upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims with the priests; and them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the Lord, and that swear by Malcham; and them that are turned back from the Lord; and those that have not sought the Lord, nor enquired for him.(1)
The Chemarims were the pagan priests, veritable personifications of evil, while the “priests” mentioned directly after the Chemarims were the Hebrew priests who had become unscrupulous careerists, who lived comfortable, even luxurious, existences, without struggle or much effort, who had essentially lost their faith in God, and who had compromised with falsehood by trying to take the east way through blending the Hebrew religion with paganism. The worshippers of the host of heaven from their housetops refers to those who worshipped the moon, stars, and planets, much like the people of today who are obsessed with astrology and fortune tellers. Malcolm was a pagan deity, and those “that swear by the Lord, and that swear by Malcolm” were, again, the compromisers – one could say that they were the ecumenists of their time -, men who possessed neither the courage to stand up for truth nor the insight to recognize falsehood and evil for what it is, and who therefore mixed, or thought that they could mix, pure gold with pig iron, that is, the light of the true God, who had not sought Him nor enquired for Him, were the lukewarm, the indifferent, and the lazy, no different in Saint Zephaniah’s day than in our own time. All such men, the Holy Prophet states, God will punish.
The Holy Prophet, speaking again from God from Whom he had received the enlightenment and authorization to speak thus, then writes:
Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord God: for the day of the Lord is at hand: for the Lord hath prepared a sacrifice, that I will punish the princes, and the king’s children, and all such as are clothed with strange apparel.(2)
Here, he is saying that we must be silent and submissive at the approach to God, or in the presence of the things of God, and that we must prepare ourselves since “the day of the Lord is at hand.” The “day of the Lord” refers both to the judgement that was about to be befall Judah, and to eschatology, that is, to the last days, when the judgement of the Almighty will come down upon all of mankind. It may be taken also to refer to the judgement each of us will face at our repose. The sacrifice that God has prepared is the sacrifice of faithless Judah, the people and national existence of which will be sacrificed in order to chastise God’s chosen and thereby salvage at least some remnant of the faithful. He chastised them, as he sometimes chastises us, for precisely the same reason. The punishment of the princes and the king’s children is a reference to the nation’s leaders, who should have defended Judah’s Godly heritage, but instead were the instigators of her fall from God’s Grace. Our national leaders today, who promote or spinelessly acquiesce in the radical secularizing of our society and government, are our modern equivalents. Those “clothed with strange apparel” were the man and women who had adopted foreign ways and customs in preference to the way of life dictated by the religion of the true God.
A few verses later, the Holy Prophet cries that the “great day of the Lord is near, it is near”(3) and that that day will be “a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness….(4) These words foretell the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians, but they relate also to eschatology, to the end of the ages, when Christ God will “come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead.”(5)
The wrath, the trouble, the distress, the wasteness, the desolation, the darkness, and the gloom of that day pertain to the shocked reaction, the stupefaction, of all of the people among the living and dead who had convinced themselves that God and religion are myths, or that material things and fun are all that matter, or that God does not take sin seriously, or that one may play at being religious without serious commitment, or that never-ending procrastination is appropriate, that time will never run out for them, or that one may mock God with impunity, or that Christ the Judge is too sweet and all loving to punish anyone. They will be dumbfounded to discover that they were mistaken, and overwhelmed with regret and pain that it is too late, that the “day of the Lord” has arrived; hence the distress, desolution, darkness, gloom, and so forth.
Christ God is indeed the God of mercy and of love, and there is certainly a sweetness in serving Him. Yet, He is also the God of perfect justice, and therefore the unrepentant must expect no quarter from Him when the day of reckoning, the “day of the Lord,” arrives. Neither the Old Testament not the New Testament makes sense otherwise. Not even Christ’s own words in the Holy Gospels make sense unless we appreciate that, while those who have lived lives in conformity to God’s will receive everlasting blessings in paradise, as is consonant with God’s justice and His All-Holy Nature, the unrepentant doers of evil will face His wrath and punishment, since they have failed to struggle to transform their inward beings, to make themselves acceptable to God.
Let us all be cognizant of these harsh realities. Let us not harbour illusions about God or His requirements for us. Let us not hesitate. Let us, without delay, prepare ourselves, for “the day of the Lord is at hand.”
(1) Zephaniah 1:4-6.
(2) Ibid., 1:7-8.
(3) Ibid., 1:14.
(4) Ibid., 1:15.
(5) The Holy Creed, the Symbol of the Faith.
SERMON TWENTY SIX: HOLY PROPHET TOBIT.
Like the Book of Baruch, which we discussed, the Book of Tobit is not found in Protestant editions of the Holy Bible, though it was an integral part of Holy Scripture in the ancient Septuagint. It was much loved by the early Church and always accepted at that time as part of the Biblical Canon of Scripture. The Church writer and scholar Origen, whose life spanned the late second and early third centuries, mentions that, while Tobit was not accepted in the Hebrew canon of his day,(1) it was accepted by the Church. Many Church Fathers make reference to, or quote, the Book of Tobit as authentic Holy Scripture, including Saints Polycarp, Cyprian. Athansios, Ambrose, Ephraim, and others. Therefore, since this book is an intrinsic part of the Orthodox Christian Tradition, which encompasses the aforementioned Holy Fathers and the witness of the early Church, Orthodox versions of the Holy Bible include the Book of Tobit, regarding it as book (and other books) by Jews and Protestants from their version of the Holy Bible is much to their detriment.
The Holy Prophet, along with his wife Anna and his son Tobias, were among those subjects of the northern Kingdom of Israel B.C., who, after its conquest by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C., were taken captive and brought to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. The Holy Prophet begins by declaring his unswerving loyalty to God: “I Tobit have walked all the days of my life in the ways of truth and justice, and I did many almsdeeds to my brethren, and my nation, who came with me to Nineve, into the land of the Assyrians.”(2) He goes on to say that, after the northern kingdom separated itself from the rule of Jerusalem and many of his countrymen fell to the worship of Baal, he alone remained faithful to God and often travelled to the Holy Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the feast days, and there made the prescribed offerings to the priests. Moreover, when taken away into captivity by the Assyrians, while others among the Hebrews ate the food of their captors, food considered unclean according to Hebrew dietary laws, he maintained the laws because, he writes, “I remembered God will all my heart.”(3)
Since he was absolutely faithful to God, even under the whip of a brutal foreign conqueror, God watched over him. This God did by, among other things, bringing Saint Tobit to the favourable notice of the Assyrian rule, who appointed him a buyer of provisions, thereby affording him a measure of freedom under Assyrian captivity. With that freedom, the Holy Prophet was able to assist his people though acts of mercy: “I gave many alms to my brethren, and gave my bread to the hungry, and my clothes to the naked: and if I saw any of nation dead, or cast about the walls of Nineve, I buried him.”(4)
The Assyrians, cruel to the core like mindless beasts (in that respect not dissimilar to the Bolsheviks of our time), killed many of the Israelites and dishonoured the slain by leaving their bodies unburied. Saint Tobis made it his business to fine these unburied bodies and to give them proper burial. For these acts of defiance he was reported to the authorities, forcing him into hiding to save himself from execution. As part of the penalty for his acts, the king ordered all his property confiscated, and so, as the Saint reported, “neither was there any thing left me, beside my wife Anna and my son Tobias.”(5)
Not long after, the Holy Prophet was stricken with blindness, which was caused by dung from a swallow’s nest falling into his eyes and presumably causing infection. Stripped of his property and goods, and now rendered blind, without the ability to earn a living for himself, his wife, and his son, Saint Tobit sorrowfully yet humbly accepted his trialswith complete trust in God.
At the same time these afflictions descended upon the Holy Prophet, in the faraway city of Ecbatana, the capital of Media, a young woman named Sara, a relative of Tobit, was encountering her own misfortunes. She, Holy Scripture tells us, had married seven times and each time her new husband died immediately after the marriage ceremony was completed. What had occurred was that Sara’s house was infested by a demon, the demon Asmodeus, who killed each new husband just as the newly married couple retired to their private chamber. So distraught was she that she briefly contemplated suicide. Instead, however, she prayed to God and, in that prayer, praised God and begged for His mercy.
Not long after these events, Saint Tobit remembered that he had left some money in trust with a relative, Gabael, in Media. He resolved at once to send his son, Tobias, to Media to retrieve that money, since it was much needed by him at that time. Calling for his son, he first instructed him in his moral duties:
My son, be mindful of the Lord our God all thy days, and let not thy will be set to sin, or to transgress his commandments: do uprightly all thy life long, and follow not the ways of unrighteousness. For if thou deal truly, thy doings shall prosperously succeed to thee, and to all them that live justly. Give alms of thy substance; and when thou givest alms, let not shine eye be envious, neither turn thy face from any poor, and the face of God shall not be turned away from thee. If thou hast abundance gives alms accordingly: if thou have but a little, be not afraid to give according to that little: for thou layest up a good treasure for thyself against the day of necessity. Because that alms do deliver from death, and suffereth not to come into darkness. For alms is a good gift unto all that give it in the sight of the most High.(6)
The Holy Prophet continued his counsel to his son, warning him against immorality, requiring that he marry among his own people, warning him against drunkenness and laziness, telling him to accept the advise of wise men, and, finally, exhorting him.
Bless the Lord thy God always, and desire of him that thy ways may be directed, and that all thy paths and counsels may prosper: for every nation hath not counsel: but the Lord himself giveth all good things, and he humbleth whom he will, as he will; now therefore, my son, remember my commandments, neither let them be put out of thy mind.(7)
As young Tobias prepared for his journey, Saint Tobit told him to select a suitable companions for the journey, whom he would pay well for his trouble. Tobias chose a young man named Raphael as his companion, who, unbeknownst to him, was an Angel of the Lord. The two proceeded on their way. They made camp at a river one evening, and there Tobias began to wash himself beside the water. A huge fish attacked Tobias as he washed, but, at Saint Raphael’s bidding, Tobias seized the fish. The Angel told him to cut open the fish and to remove the heart, liver, and gall and save them, which he did. The fish they ate that evening for their dinner.
In time, the two arrived at the home of Tobias’s kinsman, Raguel, the father of Sara, the young woman who had lost seven husbands. It was soon arranged – the story is convoluted and I will abbreviate – that Tobias and Sara be married. They were married, and as they entered the bridal chamber, they carefully followed instructions given Tobias by Saint Raphael, which was to burn the heart and liver of the fish they had caught, since the pungent smoke would drive away Asmodeus, the demon who had killed Sara’s previous husbands. Asmodeus was indeed driven away and was bound by the Angel through the power of God.
In addition to acquiring a pious and beautiful wife, Tobias gained through her a sizeable gift – a kind of dowry – of half of Raphael’s considerable wealth, along with the promise of the remainder of his wealth upon Raguel’s death. A two-week-long wedding feast ensued, during which time the Archanged Raphael went to collect the money left in trust with Gabrael. That task accomplished, Tobias, his new wife Sara, and Saint Raphael, along with their party of servants and their livestock herds, set out on their journey home.
As they approached the Holy Prophet Tobit’s dwelling, the Angel Raphael directed Tobias to go on ahead, and to take the gall of the fish they had caught at the river with him. With that gall, he was told to anoint his father’s eyes. Immediately upon seeing his father, who was stumbling about pathetically in his blindness, Tobias anointed his eyes, which were healed, and his sight fully restored. Thus the complete faithfulness and piety of the Holy Prophet Tobit, of his son Tobias, and of his new daughter-in-law Sara, were rewarded generously by God.
Shortly after that, the Holy Archangel Raphael disclosed his true identity to the two men, saying that,
It is good to keep close the secret of a king, but it is honourable to reveal the works of God. Do that which is good, and no evil shall touch you. Prayer is good with fasting and alms and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with unrighteousness. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold: for alms doth deliver from death, and shall purge away all sin. Those that exercise alms and righteousness shall be filled with life: but they that sin are enemies to their own life.(8)
He then made known to them that, as God’s command, he had long been watching over the Holy Prophet and his family, to assure their safety. Years passed, and the family prospered, the Holy Prophet’s life further graced by grandson’s.
As the Holy Prophet’s life drew to a close, he gathered his son and grandsons together and spoke to them, prophesying that one day soon the great Temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed, but that God would eventually restore it. He prophesied too that the time would come when
All nations [i.e., the Gentiles] shall turn, and fear the Lord God truly, and shall bury their idols. So shall all nations praise the Lord, and his people shall confess God, and the Lord shall exalt his people; and all those which love the Lord God in truth and justice shall rejoice, shewing mercy to our brethren.(9)
Saint Tobit emphasized most particularly the power of mercy and almsgiving: “Wherefore now, my son, consider what alms doeth, and how righteousness doth deliver. When he had said these things, he gave up the ghost in the bed, being an hundred and eight and fifty years old.”(10)
The primary message in the writings of the Holy Prophet Tobit is crystal clear. We are commanded by God to do good and avoid evil. We are especially commanded by God to do works of mercy for our fellow men and to pay heed to their needs and suffering. Such works, accomplished selflessly with a righteous heart, will bring to the doer the infinite blessings of God, if not in this life then assuredly in that to come. Finally, remember, my children in Christ, the words of the blessed Metropolitan of Phlorina, Augoustinos: “Do not listen to Mammon, who says everything for yourselves and nothing for others. Listen to Tobit’s last words, with which he sealed his life.”(11)
(1) Before the rise of Christianity, the Jewish canon of Holy Scripture remained somewhat fluid. It was finally established at the Jewish Council at Jamnia late if the first century A. D., after the fall of Jerusalem to Titus. Prior to that, the Book of Tobit had been read and revered by the Jews, especially by the Jews in diaspora.
(2) Tobit 1:3.
(3) Ibid., 1:12.
(4) Ibid., 1:16-17.
(5) Ibid., 1:20.
(6) Ibid., 4:5-11.
(7) Ibid., 4:19.
(8) Ibid., 12:7-10.
(9) Ibid., 14:6-7.
(10) Ibid., 14:11.
(11) Augustinus N. Kantiotes, A Panoramic View of Holy Scripture, Volume One, p. 115.
SERMON TWENTY SEVEN: HOLY PROPHET HABAKKUK (AMBAKOUM)
The Holy Prophet Habakkuk, one of the minor Prophets inasmuch as his book of Holy Scripture is short, lived during the late seventh century before the birth of Christ. In addition to his book, he is mentioned in the Book of Daniel, where the account of his miraculous journey to bring food to the Holy Prophet Daniel during his captivity in the lions; den appears.(1)
Saint Habakkuk observed the rise of the Babylonians and was well aware of the imminent threat they posed to the Kingdom of Judah and to the blessed city of Jerusalem. Moreover, as a Prophet of God, he fully perceived that the conquest of Judah would be God’s punishment for Judah’s gross infidelities, that is, for her dabbling in paganism and superstition, and for the avariciousness and concomitant injustices that had become rife in Judean society. Yet, the Holy Prophet was puzzled, and he expressed his several concerns to God, which he transmits to us in a dialogue between himself and God.
The book opens with the words, “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.”(2) The revelation of God, the ongoing revelation which is the life of a Prophet of God, Saint Habakkuk describes as a burden. To know the dark future, and to be summoned by God to tell others of that coming time of darkness and of God’s wrath towards the guilty, indeed is a burden that lies heavily upon the heart. It must be done, God must be obeyed, but it is far from a happy obligation.
The Holy Prophet asks God how He can so long tolerate the wickedness, corruption, and oppression that had taken hold of Judah:
O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! Why dot thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to hold grievance? For spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgement doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgement proceedeth.(3)
God replies that the wicked and unjust among the Judeans will soon taste the bitterness of a terrible judgement by the Chaldeans (i.e., the Babylonians), a “bitter and hasty nation,”(4) whom He will send to reprimand His people and bring them to their senses. For, God tells Saint Habakkuk, the Babylonians.
are terrible and dreadful: the judgement and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasten to eat. They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand.(5)
The Babylonians will act, God says, as His instrument of chastisement; they will be used by God to accomplish His purposes.
But Saint Habakkuk is still troubled since the pagan conquerors, while annihilating the cruel and oppressive from among the people of Judah and so winnowing the good from the bad, will bring cruelties and oppression of their own as they march forth, endlessly devouring nations. God responds, instructing the Saint to write down what He says so that it may be precisely conveyed to the people of Judah and to their posterity. The Babylonians, though for the moment the instruments of God, will nevertheless themselves receive a judgement appropriate to the evil they work. Ultimately, they too will be laid low and humbled, while the remnant of the faithful among the Hebrews will be restored to freedom. Hints of the coming fate of the Babylonians are then presented in a series of “woes.”
“Woe,” writes the Holy Prophet Habakkuk, “to him that increaseth that which is not his!”(6) And he continues: “Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high….”(7) Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!”(8) Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and maketh his drunken also….”(9) And finally, “Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach!”(10)
In other words – and this all refers to the Babylonians, typifying their conduct and their ways – woe to those who rob others and accumulate riches dishonestly or by violence: woe to those who are consumed by boundless greed: woe to those who commit numberless murders and tyrannize their fellow man: woe to those who propagate sin among their neighbours, debauching them: and, woe to those who worship lifeless idols of wood and stone and imagine that some good can come out of them. woe to them because, in God’s good time, they too shall be struck down.
The Holy Prophet grasped God’s wishes and His objectives and was therefore pleased with God’s response to his questions; although it meant a period of suffering, still, in the end, it meant Godly purification and redemption. Saint Habakkuk sings God’s praises, ending his short book with the words, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.”(11)
The first lesson we learn is that what appears to be dumb fate is not that at all. God will use temporal entities, like the Babylonian Empire, to direct history as He desires. God is the master of the historical process. He was that in the time of Saint Habakkuk, He is that today, and He will remain that until the en of the ages.
The second lesson we draw today involves the five woes of the Holy Prophet Habakkuk, which were aimed at the Babylonians, but which have a much broader application, an application to men and women in general, that is, to all of us here today. We are told, “Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his!”(12) If we are guilty of accumulating wealth dishonestly – even if our means may be technically legal – then we incur God’s displeasure. Additionally, if we fail to share our accumulated wealth with the poor, then likewise, we stand under God’s judgement.
Then we read, “Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high….”(13) Any of us who are covetous – and you will remember that that means greedy – , who are prideful, who place money or material goods first among our priorities, higher than our spiritual welfare or duties to God, will obviously fail to win eternity with God.
The third woe is, “Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!”(14) I doubt that any of us here today will commit the bloody terrors of the Babylonians. Yet, some imitate these terrors on a smaller scale, creating fear among underlings for unjust causes, for example. You will remember from our discussion last year of the commandments of God, that Christ likened anger to killing:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgement….(15)
We cannot build our lives on anger, on wrath, as if we possess rights and capabilities that properly belong only to God. also, we cannot murder our fellow man through gossip, lies, and evil chatter. We cannot climb the “ladder of success,” worldly success, over the ruined lives of our brothers and sisters. God will judge us for that.
The next woe reads, “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makes him drunken also….”(16) Sin is endemic to fallen mankind. God understands our struggle with sin and understands how difficult that struggle is for all of us. And He is merciful to us as a consequence. However, he who “giveth his neighbour drink” is he who places temptation before his fellow men, enticing them, beguiling them, bewitching them, luring them into sin, as a fisherman lures a fish to its doom with a baited hook. That enticement may involve alcoholic drink, or it may not. Drink and drunkenness are not the points here; sin is the point. To entice a brother or sister into sin in any way is to give that person the proverbial “kiss of death.” God will therefore judge the tempter accordingly.
And, lastly, “Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach!”(17) The last woe has to do, as we said, with idolatry. Few people today bow down in adoration before wooden or stone idols of false gods, except in places where savagery still prevails. However – and we have spoken of this many times before – there are other false idols before which modern man does bow. These maybe the false idols of money, power, career, an addiction to evil forms of entertainment (e.g., rock music or trashy films), an exaggerated and unhealthy attachment to other persons, fancy clothes, high living, and a host of other things. To sacrifice the eternal for the temporal is to choose death over life.
My beloved children in Christ, we read these Old Testament books, and our wise Mother the Church has preserved them for us, not solely for their historical content, but because from them we learn lessons that are timeless. May every man and woman here heed the words of the Holy Prophet Habakkuk, rejecting that which brings death, and instead choosing life!
(1) Bel and the Dragon 1:33-39 (Bel and the Dragon is an integral part of the Book of Daniel in the Septuagint).
(2) Habakkuk 1:1.
(3) Ibid., 1:2-4.
(4) Ibid., 1:6.
(5) Ibid., 1:7-9.
(6) Ibid., 2:6.
(7) Ibid., 2:9.
(9) Ibid., 2:15.
(10) Ibid., 2:19.
(11) Ibid., 3:18-19.
(12) Ibid., 2:6.
(13) Ibid., 2:9.
(14) Ibid., 1:12.
(15) St. Matthew 5:1-22.
(16) Habakkuk 2:15.
(17) Ibid., 2:19.
SERMON TWENTY EIGHT: HOLY PROPHET EZEKIEL (IEZEKIEL)
Today we speak of an amazing man, the Holy Prophet Ezekiel, one of the four major Prophets, which means that he wrote one of the lengthier books of prophecy. He was a priest of God who, with the people of Judah, was carried off into exile by the Babylonian conquerors and, thereafter, remained in Babylon. God’s immediate objective in calling Saint Ezekiel to the prophetic ministry was primarily to bring survivors of the conquest among the Judean people some measure of comfort, assuring them that He had not abandoned them, and that one day, after their purification by the trial of defeat and captivity, they would return from exile to their former home.
The Holy Prophet Ezekiel is unique among his peers in that his prophecies largely stem from apocalyptic visions, some of them difficult to interpret. His book is replete with these visions. It would seem that the Lord allowed him to see deeply into the realm of the spiritual world and to convey what he witnessed to others in his book. The spiritual realm, of course, is radically different that seeing it, one would find it near impossible to describe. Those granted such visions of spiritual reality, like the Holy Prophet and like some of the Saints of the Christian Era, are obliged to use earthly images and rely on earthly comparisons, which, in fact, only feebly express what is otherwise beyond expression in human terms. We see this also in Saint John the Theologian’s Book of Revelation.
Let us now explore some of the better known of these prophetic and revelatory visions.
The first of these, presented at the beginning of the Holy Prophet’s book, relates God’s initial appearance to the Saint. In the following passage, the Cherubim, surrounding the Almighty, are described:
And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies. And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightening.(1)
We attempt in many Icons to duplicate that vision of the Cherubim, though we can be certain that iconographic representations, like those of the written word, even the rather spectacular account written by the Holy Prophet, fall short, far short, of spiritual reality. Note too that the four in Saint Ezekiel’s vision, the man, the lion, the ox, and the eagle, which appear also in Saint John’s Book of Revelation,(2) traditionally represent the four evangelists: the man, Saint Matthew; the ox, Saint Luke; the lion, Saint Mark; and the eagle, Saint John.
There are Messianic visions as well, visions in which the Holy Prophet foretells the coming of Christ Jesus:
Thus saith the Lord God; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent: In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall they dwell. And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it.(3)
The cedar, the tree, from which God will crop off a tender branch is the House of David, the house from which Christ descends through His Mother. It will be a grand tree, which will “bring forth boughs, and bear fruit,” which is to say that it will bring forth the Holy Apostles and myriads of Saints, and save the souls of countless man and women. Under that tree “shall dwell all fowl of every wing.” In other words, the tree, Christ and His Church, will be open to all of the peoples of the earth, since to all men will Christ’s Gospel be preached. God will bring down the high tree and exalt the low tree; He will dry up the tree that is green and make the dry to flourish. That indicates that worldly things that appear great and enduring will all vanish, while Christ and His Church, which appear insignificant to the worldly-minded, will be exalted and will spread across the earth rapidly.
One of the most well-known of Saint Ezekiel’s visions, which Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky calls “a glorious vision,”(4) is his visit to the Valley of Death, the Valley of the Dry Bones:
The head of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: and I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall know that I am the Lord. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I behold, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind. Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them. Thus saith the Lord God; behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, and shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.(5)
An interpretation of these passages must be two-pronged. The Holy Prophet refers first to God’s promise that the political and geographical entity, the Hebrew nation, which was as dead as dry bones since it had been conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians, its people taken far away, would be resurrected, despite the “dryness” of the “bones,” that is, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, the lack of visible signs that that might ever happen.
However, the other exegetical “prong” is more literal, and that is God’s promise that all of the dead, even the driest of the dry bones of the dead of this earth, will someday gain live, and that a New Israel, Christ’s Church will live, invincible, until the end of the ages and for all eternity.
It is elementary to Christian teaching that the dead will live again. Without that belief in eternal life, “then,” as Saint Paul writes, “is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”(6) In other words, Christ is risen, and so our faith is not in vain.
From a tomb – according to an earthly perspective, a tomb of hopelessness, like the hopelessness of the dry bones in Saint Ezekiel’s vision; according to an earthly perspective, a tomb of desolation; according to an earthly perspective, a tomb of oblivion; from a tomb, the tomb of Christ, everlasting Life arose and from that tomb the promise of everlasting life, for us, arise!
(1) Ezekiel 1:4-13.
(2) Revelation 4:7.
(3) Ezekiel 17:22-24.
(4) The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol III: Creation and Redemption (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Co., 1976), p. 11.
(5) Ezekiel 371:1-14.
(6) 1 Corinthians 15:13-14.
SERMON TWENTY NINE: HOLY PROPHET DANIEL
Some of the most familiar Old Testament stories come from the Book of Daniel, a book of considerable length, for which reason the Holy Prophet Daniel is counted among the major Prophets. We will now read some of these famed Biblical stories and consider their spiritual significance.
Saint Daniel, a member of the Judean aristrocracy and clearly, from what we read in his book, well-educated and cultivated, was deported by the Babylonians to their capital after the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah. He was part of a group of young nobles seized by the Babylonians to grace the court of the conqueror, King Nebuchadnezzar. The Biblical text mentions by name four such captive: “Now among these were of the children of Judah, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azaiah.” (1) They were chosen to adorn the royal court, since having such noble and gifted people around him would testify to the king’s power and grandeur. Additionally, they would act as advisors to the king.
Shortly after arriving at the court, the young men were told that they would receive their food from the king’s table, a distinct honour bestowed on comparatively few. However, the food prepared in the palace was obviously not in accordance with the dietary laws of the Hebrew people, and thus forbidden to the faithful. Despite this, to reject the king’s food was potentially insulting to the volatile monarch and might put anyone who rejected it at serious rick. Saint Daniel therefore proposed that he and the three others be fed on pulse and water (pulse is a kind of lentil or bean stew) and, after ten days on such a diet, if the young Hebrews did not look healthier (the Holy Bible says “fairer and fatter” (2) than those who ate from the king’s table, then the Holy Prophet and his companions would relent and eat as the king wished. At the conclusion of the ten days, the young men indeed looked healthier than the others, and so they were permitted to eat as they wished and to remain obedient to God’s law.
In the second chapter, the narrative tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar II was troubled by a dream in which he saw an image, an idol, the head of which was made of gold, the breast and arms of silver, the body of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet partly of iron and partly clay. A stone then appeared and shattered the idol into particles so small that they were “like the chaff of the summer threshing floors” (3) which the wind blew away. The stone then began to grow, becoming a great mountain that “filled the whole earth.” (4)
The king decided to ask his own wise men for an interpretation of the dream, so that he could grasp its significance. But, to be sure that they were not deceiving him, he asked them not only for an interpretation, but asked them first to tell him the dream, about which he had told them nothing. They responded that it was impossible for them to know the dream, but if the king would tell them, they would give an interpretation. Nebuchadnezzar was then sure that his pagan wise men, sorcerers, and astrologers were frauds and, in his fury, threatened to have them all executed, along with all of the wise men of his kingdom including Saint Daniel and his companions.
When told of this, the Holy Prophet Daniel inquired as to the reason for the king’s rage. Upon being informed, he returned to his house and told his companions of the threat hovering over them. All of them prayed fervently to God for His mercy, and that same night God answered their prayers. Saint Daniel had a vision in which God revealed the king’s dream to him in all of its details.
Going to the king, Saint Daniel interpreted the dream. First, he explained that no wise man, not even the wisest, could possibly know what the king had dreamt. But, he added, “there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets” (5) and Who had revealed the king’s dream to him, Saint Daniel. The golden head of the image symbolized Nebuchadnezzar himself, and the other materials, silver, brass, iron, and clay, represented the kingdoms which would rule successively after the time of Nebuchchadnezzar, each inferior to its predecessor. The stone that shattered the image represented God’s Kingdom, which would supersede the petty kingdoms, a kingdom that would last for all eternity. For revealing and interpreting the dream, Nebuchadnezzar praised the God of Saint Daniel as “a God of gods, and a Lord of kings” (6) and made the Holy Prophet his chief minister and governor of all the wise men of the kingdom.
I am certain that all of us here have heard the story of the three young men consigned to the fiery furnace. The king, it seems, had fashioned an idol of pure gold, quite magnificent in its costly splendour. He then commanded that all of the officials in his kingdom come together to worship this idol. The three men, Saints Hanaiah, Mishael, and Azariah (better known perhaps by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), came together with the others, but refused to bow before the false idol. (7)
Questioned by the king, the three replied that they worshipped only the true God and would in no circumstances worship the golden idol. For that act of defiance to the king, the three were ordered placed into a fiery furnace, which was heated to seven times its usual temperature, so hot that the men who carried the Hebrew men to their supposed doom were themselves consumed by the inferno. After a while, the king came forth to see for himself that the three had perished, but was flabbergasted to see that they survived. Not only that, but the three were moving about within the furnace, completely untouched, and were accompanied by a fourth man.
Was the fourth man, the protector of the three Hebrews, really the Son of God, the Redeemer Christ God Himself, or an Angel of God? Many of the Holy Church Fathers write that it was the pre-incarnate Christ Whom Nebuchadnezzar saw present in that furnace, protecting His faithful servants. And so the king, having been granted further evidence of the powers of God, ordered the men released and given generous promotions as officials in Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar II was succeeded on the Babylonian throne by King Belshazzar. The Fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel describes a feast in the royal palace, in which Belshazzar ordered that the gold and silver vessels that had been used for sacred purposes in the great temple in Jerusalem, and which the Babylonians captured upon their conquest, be used for drinking wine during the feast. By that means, Belshazzar intended to show his contempt for the Hebrew religion and its God. Suddenly, however, while everyone was in the midst of drinking and eating, the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the wall (“Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”). (9)
The king and his fellow revelers were astounded and mystified. No one understood the words. But the queen remembered the Holy Prophet Daniel, whose reputation for interpretation was well known. Daniel was brought in, and immediately gave his interpretation. First, he related to the king that to use the sacred vessels for profane purposes was a grave insult to God, a fact of which the king was already aware; “the God in whose hand thy breath is… hast thou not glorified,” (10) he told the king. He continued, explaining the mysterious words “Mene.” “Tekel,” and “Upharsin,” which, he said, means numbered, weighted, divided. God had numbered the days of the Babylonian kingdom and would soon bring it down. God had spiritually weighed the king, and he was found wanting, that is, deficient. God would allow the kingdom of Belshazzar to be divided among his enemies, the Medes and Persians. Thus did the Holy Prophet enlighten the king as to the future. And that future was not long in arriving. That very night, Belshazzar was slain and King Darius of Media seized the Babylonian throne and kingdom.
There is one other episode in the Book of Daniel which is doubtless familiar to everyone which we will briefly explore. Under the rule of Darius, the new king, Saint Daniel was again made an important official. But other officials, who were jealous of the Holy Prophet, complained to the king that he continued to pray to the Hebrew God. Previously, the king had decreed that for thirty days, no one was permitted to pray to any of the gods, but only to King Darius. The penalty for violation of this edict was severe: to be fed to the lions. Darius was fond of Saint Daniel and did not wish to carry out the penalty, yet was forced to do so to prevent the undermining of his authority and throne, perhaps at this stage still precarious. He told the Holy Prophet, “Thy God whom thou servest continually, he will deliver thee”. (11) And so it happened that Saint Daniel was cast into the den of lions, and the opening sealed with a stone.
The king spent a sleepless night alone and fasting. At dawn, he rushed to the den and had stone removed. He cried out, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions?” (12) The Saint, completely unscathed, responded, telling the king that God had sent a Holy Angel to shut the mouths of the lions and thus protect him. (13)
Today, we have considered several short portions of the Book of Daniel. It must be said that there is much more in the book of Holy Scripture, most importantly an account of the visions be held by the Holy Prophet which pertain to the future, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the judging of earthly kingdoms by “the Ancient of days,” (14) Who is Christ God, and the institution of Christ’s Universal Kingdom. These are valuable words to read and I urge all pious Orthodox Christians to do so.
From the portions of Holy Scripture discussed today we learn first of the courage of Saint Daniel and his companions. One cannot be a believer, even in the best of conditions, without courage. Secondly, we see the power of faith in, and obedience to, God. The Saintly heroes of the Book of Daniel never wavered for a moment in their faith, and were absolutely obedient even under the most dire threat. Lastly, we must take heed of the power of prayer. The Holy Prophet and his companions were not only prayerful, they never ceased praying for God’s protection and guidance. Prayer was completely interwoven into their lives. May we all imitate the Holy Prophet Daniel, and his companions Saints Hananiah, Mishel, and Azariah, and work to develop fidelity, obedience, courage, and prayerfulness in our own lives.
(1) Daniel 1:6.
(2) Ibid., 1:15.
(3) Ibid., 2:35.
(5) Ibid., 2:28.
(6) Ibid., 2:47.
(7) It is a mystery why Saint Daniel was not present on this occasion. He may have been away on the king’s business, he may have been ill, or he may have been present, his refusal to bow not being observe by anyone. (See The Lives of the Holy Prophets: The Major and Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, comp. And trans. Holy apostles Convent [Buena Vista, co: Holy Apostles Convent, 1998], p. 394)
(8) Daniel., 3:25.
(9) Ibid., 5:25.
(10) Ibid., 5:23.
(11) Ibid., 6:16.
(12) Ibid., 6:20.
(13) Two somewhat different versions of the story of the lion’s den appear in the Septuagint text. In the second of these the Holy Prophet is confined with the lions for six days and miraculously fed by the Holy prophet Habakkuk. It may be that there were two occasions in which Saint Daniel was so threatened or it may be an anomaly in a text intended further to amplify the first version. Minor anomalies in a text copied by hand over a period of more than twenty centuries are not surprising. See Bel and the Dragon, appearing separately in the “Apocrypha” section in the complete King James Version of the Bible, and integral to the book of Daniel in the Orthodox Bible.
(14) Daniel 7:13, 22.
SERMON THIRTY: HOLY PROPHET HAGGAI (ANGAIOS)
This morning, we investigate the writings of a minor Prophet one of the more obscure of the Holy Prophet, saint Haggai. The Holy Prophet Haggai lived in the sixth century B.C. and was among the first group, totalling approximately forty-five thousand souls, which returned to its homeland. That was permitted by Cyrus II, King of Persia, who decreed that all the exiled in Babylon were free to go. While some of the exiles had made a comfortable life for themselves living in Babylon and chose to remain where they were, avoiding the rigours that awaited the returnees, the others returned to their old home in stages, over a period of many decades.
Apart from re-establishing the rudiments of day-to-day living- food and shelter – the first at hand for the returned exiles was there building of the Holy Temple, which the Babylonians had burned and levelled to the ground. Cyrus, in addition to allowing the exiles to go home, had also returned the sacred vessels that had been looted from the Holy Temple at Jerusalem, thereby assuring at least a symbolic continuity with the past. The people set to work at once, first building a temporary sacrificial altar, and then beginning work on the great building itself. However, almost immediately obstacles to the construction arose.
When the Judeans were taken away into captivity, certain numbers of them remained behind in the debris of the ruined cities and country, the flotsam, one could say, of Judah, that is, people of little importance whom the Babylonians ignored. These people, who came to be known as Samaritans, had intermarried with foreigners and gradually adopted a religion that blended the old Hebrew religion with alien elements from the religions of the foreigners. There fore, in the eyes of the returned exiles, the Samaritans were twice cursed: once for marrying foreigners and again for adulterating the Hebrew religion. They were regarded as unclean, and as worse than pagans, since they were apostates.
When the Judeans began rebuilding the Temple complex, the Samaritans were at first cooperative, offering their help. But very soon thereafter, they began to object, even petitioning Cyrus to have the work halted. It is likely that the Judeans had explained to the Samaritans that they would be barred for the new Temple.
After the foundation was completed, work on the Temple was halted for sixteen years. That was done for a number of reasons, among them international conflict, bad harvests, and possibly the obstreperous Samaritans. There was also a definite sluggishness on the part of the Judeans, who wished first to create the sort of comfortable, even luxurious, life that they were used to and to focus their attention on their homes, their flocks, and their fields. God, consequently, sent forth His Holy Prophet Haggai to remind the Judeans of their duties to Him and to prod them into finishing God’s House, the Holy Temple, with an appropriate measure of dispatch.
The Book of Haggia is very short, only two chapters of thirty-eight verses and occupying only about two pages. The Holy Prophet begins by chiding his people for their laxity in building the Temple and for making their own comfort their highest priority, rather than placing God first. He says,
Thus speaketh the Lord of hosts, saying, This people say, The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built. Then came the word of the Lord by Haggia the prophet, saying. It is time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste? (1)
In other words, God was telling His people, through Saint Haggia, that although there were mutterings that the time was not right for the Temple to be rebuilt, yet the rich were spending fortunes on their fancy homes, panelling them (“Cieled”) with costly imported woods, while the house of Almighty God lay waste, unfinished, in fact barely begun. Why was the time not right for God’s house, and yet it was right for the people’s houses?
The Holy Prophet continues:
Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.
The Judean people were being warned that despite their working for themselves, they were gaining little ground materially. They sowed, but reaped little; they did not have quite enough to eat or drink; they could not produce sufficient clothing; and the money earned by workers went “into a bag with holes,” meaning that the money never went far enough to cover the expense of living. All of that was because the things that they did to enrich themselves did not, and would not, have God’s blessing so long as the Judeans were indifferent to the things of God.
Since the people apparently thought so little of their God that they put Him and His house last in their priorities, God would bring greater hardship upon them, the Holy prophet cautions:
Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit. And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon that which the ground bringeth forth, and upon men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labours of the hands. (3)
Those words mean that God, the Author and Creator of all, will not be cheated of hat rightfully belongs to Him. The first chapter ends with the remark tat the rulers and people heard the message conveyed by the Holy Prophet Haggai, and in only three weeks commenced work on the new Temple. Saint Chrysostomos comments that Saint Haggai’s aim was one of “bringing [his people] to firm hope and of persuading them to be confident of the outcome.” (4)
The remainder of the Book of Haggai contains additional prophecies. In the first of these, the Holy Prophet declares that, wile the new Temple appears unimpressive in comparison with the old one, nevertheless, one day, God “will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.” (5) He “will fill this house with glory” (6) so that the “glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former.” (7) Since the second Temple was obviously inferior to the first, to what is Saint Haggai referring? The answer to that question is that the glory of the new Temple was to be greater because Christ God the Messiah, by His presence within its walls, would lend to it His infinite glory. He would, moreover, establish a Church to which all nations would be drawn and into which “all nations shall come.”
The remaining prophecies call upon the people of Judah to complete the new Temple and to assure that the work of the Temple was in careful compliance with God’s law. If the people worshipped God rightly, then God’s blessing would be upon them. If they failed, then God would punish them again. The Holy Prophet ends with the statement that God ultimately “will overthrow the throne of kingdoms,” (8) an eschatological declaration referring to the end of the ages, the return of Christ, and the foundation of His Kingdom.
Now, what moral lesson do we learn from the writings of the Holy Prophet Haggai? It is crystal clear that God expects us to give Him His due. And His due is simply that we put Him first. Christ teaches us that we must love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and He proclaims this “the first and great commandments.” (9) The first and great commandment!
We put God first when we come often to His house, this Church, to worship Him. We put God first when we pray to Him throughout the day. We put god first when we are obedient to His law. We put God first when we assure that our children are reared according to the Orthodox way of life. most outstandingly most notably, most significantly, in the context of this particular book of Holy Scripture, we put God first when we are generous to His Church, helping to make it prosper and grow. Is our Church building in a state of disrepair while our homes are luxurious? In this regard, let us hear again from Saint John Chrysostomos:
Now, if their [the Judeans’] mean-spirited attitude towards the temple aroused such awful wrath in God, much more will indifference to this temple [the Orthodox Christian Church and place of worship] provoke the Lord: it is more honourable than the other to the extent that it also contains greater signs of consecration. (10)
Christ Go, through the Holy Prophet Haggai, insisted that His people forego their luxuries, sacrificing for a period of time to finish His House in Jerusalem and to make it worthy of His pretence. In return, He promised His blessings on them an their nation. Let us garner His blessings ourselves, by making our own sacrifices for the sake of this, His church, thereby putting God first.
(1) Haggai 1:2-4.
(2) Ibid 1:5-6.
(3) Ibid 1:10-11.
(4) St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies, Vol. II: Homilies on Isaiah and Jeremiah, trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press 2003). P. 13.
(5) Haggai 2:7.
(7) Ibid. 2:9.
(8) Ibid. 2:22.
(9) St. Matthew 22:38.
(10) St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies, Vol. 1: Homilies on Hannah, David and Saul, trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline. MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003), p. 13.
SERMON THIRTY ONE: HOLY PROPHET ZECHARIAH (ZACHARIAS)
The Holy Prophet Zecharias was a contemporary of the Holy Prophet Haggai, the two beginning their prophetic ministries at almost the same time. Saint Zechariah was of priestly descent, both his father, Berechaiah, and his grandfather, Iddo, serving as priests, and was himself a priest.
The prophetic ministry of Saint Zechariah began in the year 520 B.C. We know that fact because the Holy Prophet begins his book with these words: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius came the word of the Lord unto Zechariah.” (1) Historians calculate that “the eighth month, in the second year of Darinus” is 520 years before the Birth of Christ.
The prophecies of Saint Zechariah are dissimilar in form and style from those of his contemporary, though the purpose is the same. While the Book of Haggai is terse, bluntly exhorting the people to obedience and repentance and threatening God’s punishment on the recalcitrant, the Book of Zechariah delivers a like message through wonderous visions. The Book, which is composed of fourteen chapters, is divided into two major parts. In the first portion of this book, the Holy Prophet relates eight spiritual visions; the second portion of the book is revelatory, disclosing events in the near and distant future. Here, the Holy Prophet refers to his revelations as “burdens,” much as did Saint Habakkuk. We lack the time to discuss all of the visions and burdens, but let us sample several.
The visions generally refer to the future of the Hebrew people, that God will rebuild all that was lost during the conquest and exile, that He will bring comfort to His people, and that He will strike down the nations that have made themselves His enemies. Yet, some are broader in their application. One vision tells of the High priest of the Temple, who, clothed in soiled vestments, stands before an Angel of God.
In chapter seven of the Book of Zechariah, we read that two officials came before the Holy Prophet to ask if the strict fasting which they had maintained during the exile should be continued, since now they had returned home and had begun rebuilding the Temple. During the decades of exile, in order to regain God’s confidence and as an expression of their grief at all that they had lost, various forms of fasting by itself, without spiritual commitment – that is, denying oneself food or certain kinds of foods, without at the same time fasting from sin – , is simply hypocrisy. Instead, he says, one should show
True judgement, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother: and oppress not the widow, not the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart. (5)
Saint Zechariah’s observation about fasting from sin is precisely that of Saint John Chrysostomos almost a millennium later.
He writes as follows:
Let no one rest on the fast merely; whilst continuing unreformed in evil practice. For it is probable, that he who omits fasting may obtain pardon, having infirmity of body to plead; but it is impossible that he can have an excuse who hath not amended his faults. Thou hast not fasted, it may be, on account of bodily weakness. Tell me for what reason thou art not reconciled to thine enemies? Again; if thou retainest envy and hatred, what apology hast thou then I ask? (6)
Neither Saint condemns or denigrates fasting, but both condemn mere ritual fasting without at the same time struggling to avoid, and purify oneself from, sin. That is the whole point of fasting, in both the Old and the New Testament Churches. Hypocritical fasting, for show, gains one nothing in the spiritual sense.
Christ Jesus too speaks of the element of hypocrisy in the fasting of the Pharisees:
Fasting, true fasting, without hypocrisy, and with firm resolve to build barriers to sin, is an essential of Christian life. To ignore fasting, says Saint John of Kronstadt, is to cut off the wings of the soul. (8)
As always, we learn much from the Holy Prophets. Their messages, properly understood, convey as much golden wisdom now as they did in their time. Their relevance to life is eternal. The world has changed dramatically in twenty-five hundreds years, but the path to a God-pleasing life has not changed, not even in the slightest. The age of the Old Testament Prophets was an age without any of our printed or electronic forms of communication. Mass communication was restricted to inscriptions chiselled on monuments, which literate passerby might read. Relatively speaking, only a handful of people ever heard the Holy Prophet speak, and even fewers read their writings during the time that they were alive. The Saints spoke and people listened to their words. Most probably, listeners passed the words on to others. As always, however, a minority of those people truly heard and allowed their hearts to be touched. Today, with all of our minority of people hear and allow God’s words into their hearts. Beloved children in Christ, may we all be among those who hear and who act correctly on what we have heard.
(1) Zechariah 1:1.
(2) Psalm 51:7 (50:9 LXX).
(3) The ancient unit of measurement known as a cubit was the distance from the elbow of a adult male to the end of his longest finger. The average distance is eigthteen inches.
(4) Zerchariah 5:3-4.
(5) Ibid., 7:9-10.
(6) St. Chrysostom, “The Homilies on the Statues, to the People of Antioch,” p.472.
(7) St. Matthew 6:16-18.
(8) Spiritual Counsels of Father john of Kronstadt Select Passages from My Life in Christ, ed. W.Jardine Grisbrooke (London James Clark & Co., Ltd., 1967), p.164.
SERMON THIRTY TWO: HOLY PROPHET MALACHI (MALCHIAS)
The Holy Prophet Malachi lived in the mid-fifth century B.C., in the century following the beginning of the return of the Judean people to their homeland and the restoration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Malachi – a short book of only four chapters – is occupied principally by condemnations of the sad degeneration that occurred over time in the religious rites conducted in the Temple. As historian Michael Grant puts it, “scepticism and slackness in cult performance abounded.” (1) Before we proceed, let us briefly outline the structure of the Temple rites.
From the time of the Holy Prophet Moses, the centre of Hebrew religious worship was the Holy Temple. It was within the confines of the Temple that sacrifices were offered to God, and these were animal sacrifices (olive oil and grain were offered as donations to the Temple). Persons offered sacrifices to thank God for some beneficial happenings, to atone for sin, or to petition God for something they desired, a good harvest, for example. Sacrifices were offered daily on behalf of the nation, as well, to show honour to, and to worship, God. These sacrifices, and the ministry of the sacrificial priesthood, were found only at one place, the Holy Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. The Law stipulated that the faithful were to visit the Temple at least three times each year: “Three times in the year all males shall appear before the Lord God.” (2) In practice, many people only rarely visited the Temple or offered sacrifices, for example, the poor or those who lived a great distance from Jerusalem. What was the nature of the sacrificial ritual?
The persons offering sacrifice brought an animal or animals to the priests to be offered to God. The animal had to be perfect, with out any blemish whatever. Such a perfect creature would naturally be of far greater value than one that was flawed in some way. Thus, only the best was offered to God. The priest took the animal to the Altar, which was an open space within the Temple walls, directly in the front of the Temple building itself, at a place known as the Courtyard of the Priests. There, upon the Altar, the animal was laid down and restrained. The priest placed his hands on the head of the beast, consecrating it to God and naming the person or family making the offering. The animal was then killed and its blood sprinkled about the Altar’s base. Blood, to the ancients, was mysteriously charged with life, so by sprinkling the blood, the life of the victim was transmitted to God. Finally, the offering was cut into pieces, specific portions being reserved for the priests. The remainder was wholly consumed by fire on the Altar until reduced to ashes.
The Great Temple was unlike our Church buildings in that it was not designed for community worship. There was no place in this structure for a multitude of people to pray or worship in concert. In later Judaism, probably beginning at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile, there developed the idea of the synagogue (which word comes from the Greek [“syngoge”], meaning “assembly”) and synagogue worship, where the people came together for prayers and to study the teachings of their religion. No sacrifices were offered in the synagogue worship, coexisted, side by side, for several centuries, until shortly after the time of Christ’s earthly ministry. After the final destruction of the Temple by Emperor Titus in A.D. 70, all sacrificial priesthood died out. Thereafter, Judaism was centred exclusively on the synagogue and its rabbinical leadership, as is still the case today
The Holy Prophet Malachi writes that God was displeased by the Judeans with respect to their worship and devotion to Him. For a short time, after the return from Babylon, the people exhibited a newfound enthusiasm for God and His commandments, since they saw their return as a miracle of God. But that enthusiasm rather quickly waned. Soon, the people’s attention was taken up by their own private concerns. They went about their business, acknowledging God only outwardly, but not in their hearts. Yet, God, the Maker of all, requires sincerity; He requires the true love and loyalty of His people.
The Holy Prophet writes: “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? And if I be a master, where is my fear: saith the Lord of hosts unto you…” (3) If we properly honour our earthly father and those in authority over us in this world, is God not deserving of the same and much more?
Blemished animals – blind, diseased, and lame, creatures without value, mere debris, about to be discarded anyway – were being offered in sacrifice and, worse yet, the priests were allowing it, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of the First Temple. “And if ye offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And if ye offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee, or accept thy person?” (4) In other words, why were unworthy sacrifices, that one would not dream of offering to an earthly ruler, to a governor, a king, or suchlike, being offered to God, Who rules the whole of the universe? The nature or condition of each anima was in reality of no concern to God. But the frame of mind of the one making the offering was of concern, since blemished offerings signified a careless attitude, which, in turn, betrayed a lack of faith. That lack of faith was what disturbed the Almighty.
As the opening of chapter two, we find God’s attention directed towards the Temple priests:
And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you. If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart, to give glory unto my name, saith the Lord of hosts, I will even send a curse upon you, and I will curs your blessings: yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart. (5)
The priests, it appears, had sunk into the same half-heartedness and superficiality as the people. They were remiss in not guiding and instructing, in not strengthening the people in their faith, and in failing to rebuke those who offered improper sacrificial victims. Their predecessors were men of God, but the priests of Saint Malachi’s time had become cold-hearted, faithless “professionals,” insistent on their privileges, insistent on outward show, but blind to the substance of their sacred duties, and careless in their priestly ministrations.
The degradation of the formerly high standards in the conduct of Temple worship is at the heart of the Book of Malachi. However, the book also conveys some prophecy of greater significance:
For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts. (6)
Plainly, this is a reference to genuine Orthodox Christianity, wherein incense is offered up to God over all the earth by peoples formerly heathen, and, additionally, by them is offered a “pure offering,” the purest offering, infinitely pure. It is offered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy, of the Precious Body and Blood of Christ God Himself.
Chapter three contains more astonishing words of prophecy:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to the temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. (7)
Those words are spoken by Christ God, through His Holy Prophet. He says He will send a messenger to prepare the way for Him. That is Saint John the Forerunner about whom He speaks. And He, the Lord, will come into the time and space of material creation at the Incarnation and will physically enter His Holy Temple.
Those words refer also to Christ’s Second Advent, when He will come as the Judge of mankind. We know that since, a few verses later, He says:
And I will come near to you to judgement; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the Lord of hosts. (8)
Now, Christ God lists certain sins in the foregoing passage: sorcery, adultery, perjury, the oppression of employees, widows, and orphans, the lack of charity, and the lack of fear of God. These, He says, He will judge. However, that does not mean that He will exclude judgement against other kinds of sins. We can be certain of it, in chapter four, hesays,
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. (9)
Strong words, these, and a strong antidote against those who teach universal salvation, that all will be saved. Remember, God does not speak or threaten idly.
We must observe that, although the Book of Malachi is short, it nevertheless is a book of great wisdom. The overriding message here is that in our duties to God and His Church, we must be careful and attentive. When we are in God’s House – this Church building – we must conduct ourselves with a feeling of awe before the majesty of the Almighty, in whose very presence we stand.
We must dress ourselves in a manner consonant with the Divine Presence. Were we invited to visit the Queen of England in her palace, would we not dress in a manner suitable to the occasion? How much more so must we do that when visiting the King of Kings, Inside the Church, let us consider everything we think about and do. it is not permissible to chat and visit in Church. Our eyes should not wander about, peering at other people, but should be directed towards the Priest or towards the Holy Icons. Our mind should not be wandering either, but should be concentrated on the sacred words being chanted. We should make our Signs of the Cross with reverence. Most importantly, we must receive the Holy Mysteries of Confession and Communion only after proper preparation. Those who serve as Altar servers or who sing in the choir should also focus clearly on their duties, and not allow outside distractions to interrupt that focus.
With regard to Divine Services, Saint John Chrysostomos admonishes the faithful to “attend here with piety lest we incur an increase in sin instead of their forgiveness….” (10) If we fail in these things, then we insult God and win disfavour by our sin. If we are, however, attentive to the things of God, and obey His commandments, we will reap our reward. Either we struggle to obey God and make Him our Friend, or we seek only our own gratification and ignore God, which will be to our everlasting sorrow.
We will close with the words of Saint Malachi:
Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for then that feared the Lord ,and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between therighteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not. (11)
(1) Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel, p. 187.
(2) Exodus 23:17; cf. Deuteronomy 16;16.
(3) Malachi 1:6.
(4) Ibid., 1:8.
(5) Ibid., 2:1-2.
(6) Ibid., 1:11.
(7) Ibid., 3:1 cf. St. Matthew 11:10; St. Mark 1:2. St. Luke 7:27.
(8) Malachi 3:5.Ibid., 4:1.
(9) Ibid., 4:1.
(10) St. John Chrysostom, Old Testament Homilies, Vol. II, p. 49.
(11) Ibid., 3:16-18.
SERMON THIRTY THREE: HOLY PROPHET EZRA (ESDRA)
This week we explore the work of the Holy Prophet Ezra who, in Sacred Scripture, is closely connected to the Holy Prophet Nehemiah (whom we shall discuss next week). There is a potential for some confusion over the books identified with the Holy Prophet Ezra and Nehemiah. The numbering of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah by Saint Jerome in the Vulgate differs from that used in the Septuagint. The Book of Nehemiah is called the Second book of Esdras in the Vulgate and in editions of Holy Scripture based on the Vulgate. In Orthodox editions, published in the languages of European Orthodox peoples, yet another numbering system prevails. Additionally, certain portions of writings identified with the Holy Prophet Ezra do not appear in sectarian versions of Holy Scripture. (1) Suffice it to say that for the sake of clarity and brevity, we will concern ourselves here with the accounts of the activities of these two men as they appear in the Book of Ezra and Nehemiah published in most English-language editions of the Holy Bible.
There are several differing opinions as to precisely when the Holy Prophet Ezra lived. Some believe that he preceded Saint Nehemiah by roughly a generation, others regard the men as contemporaries, while still others place Saint Ezra thirty or so years after Saint Nehemiah. It seems most probable, from reading Holy Scripture, that the missions of the two Holy Prophets overlapped. (2) Again, let us remind ourselves that our purposes, while they certainly involve history to a great extent, are centered primarily on moral teaching, and on elevating our lives based on that moral teaching, and not on the historical minutiae and historical controversies that animate the undertakings of professional scholars.
The Holy Prophet Ezra lived in the fifth century B.C. and was both a priest and a scribe, that is, one who studied and had cultivated expertise in the Law of God. As with many of the educated exiles, he was also an official in the court of the Persian King. Holy Scripture tells us that, at the Holy prophet’s request, the King of Persia, Artaxerxes, allowed Saint Ezra and a large party of Judeans to depart from Babylon and journey to Jerusalem. Knowing that there was much social dislocation and unrest among the returnees to Jerusalem, and that they “had grown indifferent and unobservant of the Law,” (3) Artaxerxes dispatched the Holy Prophet to his homeland desiring that he firmly re-establish the religion of his ancestors in all of its aspects, and thereby bring peace and order to the region. The king told the Holy Prophet,
And thou, Ezra, after the wisdom of thy God, that is in thine hand, set magistrates and judges, which may judge all the people that are beyond the river, all such ask no the laws of thy God; and teach ye them that know them not. And whatsoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king, let judgement be executed speedily upon him, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment. (4)
The first problem that confronted the Holy Prophet Ezra upon his arrival in Jerusalem was that of mixed marriages. We shall see this same issue dealt with by the Holy Prophet Nehemiah, and whether the two men confronted the issue simultaneously or at separate times we do not know. It seems likely that they were separate occasions, since that is how Holy Scripture treats them. Nonetheless, it was an important matter, especially since intermarriage with foreign peoples undermined the separateness of the Judean people, a separateness often emphasized in Divine commands.
Saint Ezra writes:
…[T]he princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied [dazed]. Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away; and I was astonied until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God, and said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens. (5)
Since intermarriage with foreigners was likely to attenuate faithfulness to God and encourage the mingling of true and false religious beliefs (and past history and experience demonstrated that such concerns were entirely valid), the Holy Prophet was rightfully stunned. That even the priests and those who held other offices at the Temple had taken alien wives was doubly shocking because of the example it gave to the people. Over time, the practice would certainly have spelled the end of the Judean people and their religion. Ruling that those who had taken heathen wives must dissolve such illicit unions forthwith, Saint Ezra exacted a signed pledge to that effect from all of those who had contracted such marriages. That all may seem unnecessarily harsh to us today. However, at that time it was a matter of cultural and religious life or death.
To bring home to the people all that they had lost during the stresses of the Babylonian Exile, the Holy Prophet Ezra gathered the people in an outdoor public, and, standing on a wooden dais, read loud to them the complete Law of God over a period of several days.
And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. (6)
It is believed by most that he read the entire text of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Holy Bible, also called the Books of Moses. These contained the early history of the Hebrew people and the Law of God. He not only read, but also offered his commentary, so that all would clearly understand. Hearing and being reminded of their unique calling, contemplating the greatness of their forefathers, and considering how far they had fallen, the people were extremely moved. The historian Josephus says that the Holy Prophet
stood in the midst of the multitude and read them; and this he did from morning to noon. Now, by hearing the laws read to them, they were instructed to be righteous men for the present and for the future; but as for their past offences, they were displeased at themselves, and proceeded to shed tears on their account, as considering with themselves that if they had kept the law, they had endured none of these miseries which they had experienced. (7)
The people soon repented of the evil they had committed:
Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. and the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. (8)
Thus, by guiding them back to a Godly path, did the Holy Prophet Ezra earn the love of his people, Josephus calls Saint Ezra “a righteous man, and one that enjoyed a great reputation among the multitude” (9) and relates that, at the end of his sacred ministry, “he died an old man, and was buried in a magnificent manner at Jerusalem.” (10)
We are told other stories from Tradition. It is said, for example, that at the time of the Babylonian conquest, all of the books of Sacred Scripture had been burned with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The Holy Prophet was able to restore all of these books by writing out the texts from memory and thus save them for posterity. For that reason he is revered as a “Second Moses.” He is also credited with the adoption of the square Hebrew script for sacred writing, since it characters were less apt to be miscopied than the earlier Phoenician-derived script. The square letters are still in use today in sacred Hebrew texts. It is thought too that the Holy Prophet contributed to the establishment of synagogue worship in Judah, which, you will remember, arose and developed during the Exile in Babylon.
What lesson may we draw from the work of the Holy prophet Ezra? He was a man wholly devoted to truth, to the defense of truth, and to the preservation of our knowledge of truth. The upholding of truth most certainly entails risks, requires the carrying of heavy burdens, and necessitates personal sacrifices, sometimes great personal sacrifices. Compromise with falsehood and error, on the other hand, is most generally the easy path, a path that brings the accolades of the world. Without truth, without devotion to and the defense and preservation of truth, however, one is consigned to an outer darkness, a darkness so dark that it offers no escape, imprisoning its captives in an all-encompassing darkness that never ends.
|(Septuagint text)||(Vulgate text)||(Masoretic text)|
|I Esdras||III Esdras||I Esdras|
|II Esdras||I Esdras||Ezra|
|Apocalypse of Esdras||IV Esdras||II Esdras|
(2) See Paul Johnson. A History of the Jews (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 86. Johnson places Saint Ezra’s mission to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. and Saint Nehemiah’s thirteen years later, in 445 B.C. The two man then joined one another in their efforts.
(3) Charles Souvay, “Esdras, “The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5 (New York, NY: Robert Appleton Co., 1909).
(4) Ezra 7:25-16.
(5) Ibid., 9:1-6.
(6) Nememiah 8:3.
(7) Flavius Josephus, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” 11:5:5.
(8) Nehemiah 9:1-2.
(9) Flavius Josephus, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” 11:5:1.
(10) Ibid., 11:5.
SERMON THIRTY FOUR: HOLY PROPHET NEHEMIAH (NEEMIAS)
Before we enter into today’s discussion, let us briefly recapitulate so that we understand the importance of the Holy Prophet Nehemiah and the historical setting in which he lived.
In the 586th year before the Birth of Christ, the city of Jerusalem, capital of the Kingdom of Judah, fell before the conquering Babylonians. The city was burned, the Holy Temple razed to the ground, and the Judean people deported en masse to Babylon. Roughly a half century after these horrific events, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persians. A few years after that conquest the long-awaited miracle occurred: the Persian King, Cyrus II, permitted the return to Jerusalem. Although not everyone wanted to return, those, for example, who had comfortably established themselves in Babylon, others trickled back in groups over time. It was approximately a century after the time of Saint Haggia (about whom we spoke three weeks ago) that the Holy Prophet Nehemiah lived, in the fifth century B.C.
The Book of Nehemiah begins by informing us that the author is “the son of Hachaliah.” (1) We know nothing more of his origins, except that he was likely of the tribe of Judah. However, he served in the court of the Persian monarch, Artaxerxes I, as the royal cupbearer, which meant that he was charged with providing drink to the king. It is likely that the duties of the cupbearer included serving the king his drink, assuring that he was served only the best, and, most crucially, tasting the drink before serving to assure its whole-someness and quality. Every king had his enemies and assassination by poison was always a possibility. Saint Nehemiah’s position was therefore one of high honour and trust, since, as one can imagine, Artaxerxes literally placed his life in the hands of his cupbearer. It was also a position that allowed the cupbearer daily access to the king and a measure of familiarity, a feature of the position that, thanks be to God, brought the Saint and his people much benefit.
The Holy Prophet learned from compatriots that the Judeans who had returned to their homeland were suffering “in great affliction and reproach” (2) and that the Holy City of Jerusalem was in lamentable condition, still largely in ruins, and its walls in a state of diplapidation. Great cities, in the ancient world, had to be walled. Since a great city meant great wealth, a city without walls would be so easily the prey in invaders and marauders that no one would want to live there. Therefore, unless Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt, the city could not recover. Upon learning of the plight of his people, Saint Nehemiah wrote: “And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of Heaven.” (3)
The Holy Prophet Nehemiah approached the king, who had become his friend, and asked his assistance in improving the lot of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Artaxerxes responded by appointing him governor of Jerusalem and its environs, and granting him extraordinary powers to proceed with the restoration of the Holy City, after which the Saint journeyed with his entourage to Jerusalem.
His arrival and the disclosure of his plans to restore the city walls stirred immediate opposition. The Persian officialdom felt threatened as did the potentates of neighbouring non-Judean cities. They joined in a chorus of hostility and obstructionism, at first ridiculing the project and then suggesting that it was aimed at undermining Persian sovereignty. The false prophetess Noadiah was enlisted to attempt to frighten the Holy Prophet. Plots were launched to murder him. But he pursued his objectives with a single-minded obstinacy that defeated his adversaries. In fifty-two days, the re-building of the city walls was complete.
So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in the fifty and two days. And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God. (4)
Upon the completion of the walls, the Saint returned to his duties in Susa, the Persian capital. However, he was soon sent on a second mission to Jerusalem, this time to initiate certain religious and social reforms.
Firstly, there were shocking abuses with regard to the Holy Temple. Among other things, Tobiah the Ammonite, a vociferous opponent of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and a foreigner and heathen to boot, had been given living quarters inside the Temple complex and this he had been given by none other than the High Priest Eliashib. Saint Nehemiah records:
And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the houses of God. and it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber. (5)
Tobiah having been thrown out of the Temple, the Holy Prophet commanded that the room occupied by him be ritually purified and restored to its former use, as a chamber for storing Temple offerings.
Secondly, Saint Nehemiah was outraged that the Levites were being denied their due, insofar as the distribution of tithes were concerned. This denial of sustenance caused the Levites to leave their sacred duties and to seek to support themselves and their families elsewhere. The Holy Prophet severely rebuked those responsible. He states that he “gathered them together, and set them in their place.” (6)
Thirdly, because of the negligence and slapdashery of the Temple priests in the discharge of their duties, many people had withheld their tithes and offerings. The Saint returned the functioning of the Temple to its correct state, requiring all concerned to carry out their obligations with piety and conscientiousness. Satisfied, the people began again to pay their tithe.
Next, he noted that the Sabbath was no longer observed or respected:
In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day wherein they sold victuals. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the Sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem. Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil things is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? Did not yours fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us? Yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath. (7)
He demanded that, thenceforth, the sacred day of rest was to be observed, as required by God.
Finally, there was the vexatious matter of mixed marriages, a problem greatly exacerbated at that time, since, during the Babylonian Exile, throngs of foreigners had occupied the lands of Israel and Judah. As we noted last week, many of the returnees from exile had intermarried with the worshippers of idols, and that, the Holy Prophet Nehemiah believed, undermined both the Judean religion and culture. The Saint complained that the children of such marriages no longer spoke the language properly, but spoke a debased tongue, a kind of pidgin. It is also clear that mixed marriages contributed to a compromising attitude, to a laxness with regard to the religion of the true God and, worst of all, to the gradual amalgamation of the religion of the true God with that of the idolaters. Even within priestly families, mixed marriages had been allowed.
The Holy Prophet writes that he
Contended with [those who had married foreigners], and cursed them and smote certain of them, and plucked off hteir hair, and made them swear to God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves. (8)
The practice, forbidden, at least in theory, throughout most of the history of the Hebrew people, (9) was forbidden anew under the Holy Prophet Nehemiah, the prohibition aiming to protect a relatively weak and small nation from the paganism and immortality of its neighbours.
As an historical figure, the Holy Prophet Nehemiah was truly a remarkable man, one of those gifted leaders of men who radiate and inspire confidence, whose commands are followed without question, and for whom the word “impossible” does not exist. In addition, he was a true man of God, among other things giving much assistance to the Holy Prophet Ezra in his ministry. The historian Josephus writes:
So when Nehemiah had done many other excellent things, and things worthy of commendation, in a glorious manner, he came to a great age, and then died. He was a man of a good and righteous disposition, and very ambitious to make his own nation happy. (10)
In the final chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, the Holy Prophet prays repeatedly, begging that God will remember him for the good things he had accomplished. “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my goods deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof,” (11) he writes. And, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.” (12) And, at the very conclusion of the book, he says, “Remember me, O thy God, for good.” (13)
There is indeed tremendous good for which this Holy Prophet is remembered. Saint Nehemiah’s life was one of total service to God and to his people. Never did he seek anything for himself, but always for God and for others. Thus, his love was wholly selfless. That is precisely the kind of love that we are commanded by Christ to cultivate. If our love is as selfless as that of the Holy Prophet, and if, as a result, we do good for the sake of God and our fellow man, then we can be assured that when we are judged by Christ, we will be spared, in accordance with, as the Saint declares, the greatness of His mercy.
(1) Nehemiah 1:1.
(2) Ibid., 1:3.
(3) Ibid., 1:4.
(4) Ibid., 6:1516.
(5) Ibid., 13:7-8.
(6) Ibid., 13:11.
(7) Ibid., 13:15-18.
(8) Ibid., 13:25.
(9) See Deuteronomy 7:3.
(10) Flavius Josephus, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” 11:5.8.
(11) Nehemiah 13:14.
(12) Ibid., 13:22
(13) Ibid., 13:31.
SERMON THIRTY–FIVE: HOLY PROPHET, FORERUNNER, AND BAPTIST JOHN
We end our series of discussions on the Patriarchs and Prophets with the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist (1) John, a towering figure who bridges the Old and New Testaments and who reveals, more precisely than his forebears, the object, the aim, the goal, the purpose of the preceding two-thousand-year history of the Hebrew people: namely, the advent of the Messiah, the God-Man, the Saviour, Jesus Christ. That was so since, as Saint Nicholas of Zica writes, Saint John “especially differs from all other prophets in that he had the privilege of being able, with his hand, to show the world Him about Whom he prophesied.” (2)
To discover the miraculous origin of Saint John the Forerunner, we read the following account in the opening pages of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke:
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went in to the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. (3)
The Angel further promised that the soon-to-be-born son would be filled with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” (4) and that he would “go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (5) Saint Zacharias, stunned by the appearance of a Holy Angel and by the news that his wife would bear a son despite her advanced age, was somewhat incredulous. He answered with the words, “Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” (6) In other words, what you say seems impossible for a man and wife so old. The Holy Angel responded:
I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. (7)
Saint Zacharias, staggered by his vision, came out of the inner Temple. Just as the Holy Archangel Gabriel had said, the Saint could not speak. And sometime later, his wife, Saint Elisabeth, who was a cousin of the Most Holy Theotokos, conceived. Nine months later, the promised son was born. Her friends and kinsfolk rejoiced at God’s mercy, at the miracle that had allowed a woman well along in years to bear a child. When, eight days after his birth, the infant was to be circumcised, neighbours gathered together for the occasion. It was assumed by all that he would be given the name Zacharias, after his father; however, Saint Elisabeth announced that he would be called John.
Saint Luke’s Gospel relates:
And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. (8)
Saint Zacharias sang a hymn of thanksgiving to God, saying about his new son:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide out feet into the way of peace. (9)
The Gospel tells us that “the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.” (10)
We next read of the Saint, at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, that “the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (11) Saint Nicholas of Zica writes that Saint John “was of such moral purity that, in truth, he could be called an angel.” (12) It is evident that from the time Saint John was of sufficient age to understand he chose the path of purification from all evil, which path leads to spiritual enlightenment in the things of God. saint Matthew refers to his asceticism, noting that he “had his raiment of camel-s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was shoots and wild honey,” (13) which reminds us of those rugged and God-loving men of later ages, the Desert Fathers. Thereby purified, his mission was to prepare the Judean people for the message that would be brought forth by Christ Jesus, who was soon to begin His own public ministry.
Saint John’s preaching gained a significant following. Great throngs of people journeyed to wilderness around the Jordan River to hear his words and to undergo his Baptism. The Saint spoke bluntly, as the Holy Prophets are wont to do, calling his listeners a “generation of vipers.” (14) and warning them of God’s wrath and the need to repent, that is, to turn completely away from sin: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (15) was his relentless admonition. The people, much moved and impressed, suggested that perhaps Saint John was the Messiah, but the Saint rebuffed them, saying, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (16)
Let us turn for a moment to the subject of the Baptism of Saint John. Saint John’s Baptism was a symbolic, or ritual, act of purification, signifying that the person immersed in the waters of the Jordan had chosen to repent and had committed himself to turn around his life towards God and away from sin. Thus, Saint Paul refers to Saint John’s Baptism as the “baptism of repentance.” (17) It was not the same as the Holy Mystery (i.e., Sacrament) of Orthodox Christian Baptism, which, in addition to cleansing the person being Baptized of all sin, mysteriologically infuses the Grace of God into that person, making him a member of the Church, ad adopted child of the Almighty, and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. So it was that in the earliest days of the Church, those who had been Baptized by Saint John were required nevertheless to receive the Holy Mystery of Christian Baptism. (18)
At the very beginning of His public ministry, Christ Himself underwent Saint John’s Baptism, though He was sinless. He condescended to do so as an act of humility and as an example to the people of His concurrence with the preaching of Saint John. When Christ approached Saint John to be baptized, the Holy Forerunner first exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (19) Holy Scripture explains that Saint John was at first reluctant to Baptize Christ saying that “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” (20) His exclamation upon seeing Christ, and his words of hesitation at the notion that he should Baptize Christ, tell us that the Saint, enlightened by his life of purity, knew exactly with Whom he was speaking. Yet, Christ Jesus insisted, and the Saint complied. Holy Scripture describes the event as follows:
Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (21)
Saint John was as outspoken as the Holy Prophets of earlier centuries, since his mission was one of obedience to God to preach God’s word, whatever the cost. Consequently, he was not the least hesitant to speak against Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed Tetrarch (ruler or governor) of Galilee, when Herod took as his wife Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother, Philip (whom she had divorced) ,and the daughter of another of Herod’s half-brothers, Aristobulus. Such a union was plainly incestuous, according to Mosaic law. Since Herod was nominally of the Judean religion, his marriage to Herodias caused tremendous scandal, and so the Saint commenced preaching against this marriage publically. Herod was enraged, and ordered the Saint seized. He would have liked to have had Saint John executed at once, but, aware of the Saint’s popularity among the people, imprisoned him instead. The Tetrarch than made an unwise, indeed a reckless, oath.
Saint Matthew records:
But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger [a platter. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which him at meat, he commanded it to begiven her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. (22)
So it was that the vengeful, vicious, and scheming Herodias brought an end to the life of the Holy Prophets.
Saint John the Theologian writes of the Holy Forerunner in these words:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of the Light. (23)
He bore witness to the Light that is Christ, the first and unique witness of that Light. He was followed by countless witnesses, who witnesses for Christ by their words and deeds, many giving their lives for Christ’s sake (the word “martyr” in Greek [“martyrs”] means witness).
We, all of us, are called upon to be witnesses to the Light. That is why we are Christians. To call oneself a Christian but to fail to witness for Christ is an exercise in futility, a waste of time, since the Church was not founded for purposes of entertainment, or to preserve certain ethnic cultures, or for any other secular purpose whatever. It was founded to teach each of us a particular way of life, a life in Christ, to teach it to each of us and to guide us in living it. Anything less than that is sheer emptiness, without spiritual content or meaning. Therefore, my beloved children in Christ, be mindful of what it truly means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. Learn from the Holy Scriptures and from other spiritual works that Christ asked of you when He brought you into His Church, what He asks of you now, and what His Way of Life requires. Then assiduously follow that prescription for everlasting happiness with Him.
(1) That is, the “Baptizer,” one who Baptizes (from the Greek [“Baptistes”]).
(2) Saint Nikolai Velimirovic, The Prologue of Obrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. Fr. T. Timothy Tepic, ed. Fr. Janko Trbovic, the St. Herman of Alaska Serbian Orthodox Monastery, and the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, Vol 1: January to June (Alhambra, CA:
Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), p. 28.
(3) St. Luke 1:5-14.
(4) Ibid., 1:15.
(5) Ibid., 1:17.
(6) Ibid., 1:18.
(7) Ibid., 1:19-20.
(8) Ibid., 1:61-64.
(9) Ibid., 1:76-79.
(10) Ibid., 1:80.
(11) Ibid., 3:2-3.
(12) Saint Niklai Velimirovic, The Prologue of Obrid, Vol. 1, p. 28.
(13) St. Matthew 3:4.
(14) St. Luke 3:7.
(15) St. Matthew 3:2.
(16) St. Luke 3:16.
(17) Acts 19:4.
(18) See Acts 19:5.
(19) St. John 1:29.
(20) St. Matthew 3:14.
(21) Ibid., 3:16-17.
(22) Ibid., 14:6-10.
(23) St. John 1:6-8.