The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 March

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26 March. Daniel chapter 6

Not a new thought today – I am re-posting with a few amendments what I wrote on 30 August last year, as it is relevant to Holy Week.

A pattern, perhaps not obvious at first, is seen in the story of the lions’ den when compared with the events of Holy Week (the last days of Jesus’ life).  Daniel. like Jesus, is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler (Darius in Daniel’s time, Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ day) tries to get out of what the law demands, knowing that the man before him is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails (as it did when calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus) and the innocent man is reluctantly condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus, Daniel did not actually die, the lions miraculously sparing him.  But just as Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb and sealed with a stone, so Daniel is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king, like Mary Magdalene and her friends, comes fearing the worst, but like them hears the voice of the one they thought was dead.

The outcome of both stories is much the same: King Darius is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith, and the Apostles come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

This story was written probably about 150 years before Jesus, yet it seems to be as much a prophecy or foreshadowing of what would happen to the Messiah, as it is a coded history of the various tyrants who had persecuted the Jews up to the time of the Macabbeans (which is how a historian would read the book of Daniel).  For that reason, as well as his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Daniel is regarded as one of the prophets.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 March

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25 March. Daniel 3:24-90

For the rest of chapters 1-4 see my blog posts for 28 August and 29 August 2017.

These interpolations to the text of Daniel chapter 3 are titled “The song of Azariah” and “The song of the Three Young Men”.  They are put in the mouths of the Jews who, condemned for their refusal to worship the statue of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the furnace but protected from harm by an angel.  Whether this is a true miracle, or total fiction, or somewhere between, the value of these passages lies in the way that people in great danger turn to God, not in anger but in praise.  Azariah’s song acknowledges that God has rightly punished the Jewish people for turning away from him, and calls on him to have mercy on those who do still believe and trust in him.

The song of the Three Young Men (Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael, or to give them their Babylonian names Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach) is one of pure praise. It resembles the Psalms, in particular those with a congregational refrain (“Bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!”).  Only at the end do the three men thank God for rescuing them from death, as if that is less important than praising him for his whole creation. This idea that God can and should be praised, even in the most testing of times, is another theme found throughout the Bible.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 March

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24 March. Baruch chapters 4-6

Chapters 4 and 5 are a prophesy during the exile to Babylon, in which Jerusalem is personified as a woman who has been widowed and her children taken away; she is urged to be patient until they come back.  Although Baruch is associated with his contemporary Jeremiah, some of the words of chapter 5, with talk of levelled hills and filled valleys, are reminiscent of the earlier prophet Isaiah. This lesson, of being patient in times of trouble and trusting in God to restore better times at the right season, is one that recurs many times in Scripture, and especially in the Prophets.  God is never seen as condemning anyone to continual punishment in this life (though the fate of the unrepentant sinner after death is a different matter); turning to God in trust may not result in an instant improvement in our fortunes, but demands patience and hope for the future.

Chapter 6, by contrast, is a letter written earlier, before the exile, by the prophet Jeremiah. It warns in vivid terms of the dangers of idolatry, and especially mocks those who worship wooden idols.  However rich their gold leaf, silver ornaments and purple clothing, they have no power, no personality.  Jeremiah was obviously concerned that the God-worshipping people of Israel and Judah would be led astray by living in Babylonia where such idols were worshipped.

It is a strong person who, throughout their life, can resist the example and invitation of others to do what they know to be wrong.  Why is it wrong, though, rather than merely harmless? For if idols have no reality, what real harm can be said to be done by joining in worshipping them?  The point is that one cannot worship both the true God and idols – the heart can only point in one direction, ad it is important to get it right.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 March

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23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3

These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom.  The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained.  It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple.  Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased.  But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.  By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them.  Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God.  As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,

Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)

The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him.  This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom.  While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do  is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”.  And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.

Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world.    Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet.  And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.

The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right.    Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 March

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22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51

The book ends with two very different chapters.  The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place.  A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people.  And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.

There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice.  Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God.  But overall, the principles of communal worship  have not changed that much.

The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her.  This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money;  life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history.  A whole library of practical life skills, in fact.  It deserves to be more widely read.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 March

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21 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 44-49

I have grouped this long passage of six chapters together because they form a continuous narrative, recounting the heroes of Israel’s history.  In chapters 38-39 we read of the contrast between the majority of people who work hard but are quickly forgotten when they die, and the small number of those whose fame is remembered well after their time.  It is those few who are celebrated here. Starting with Enoch and Noah, legendary figures from prehistoric times, moving through the Patriarchs, Moses, the ties of the Judges, Kings, and Prophets, right through to Nehemiah who rebuilt the temple, this is over a thousand years of history summarised in a few pages.

Mostly these men (and yes, it is all men – even the Judges are described thus, though they included some women) are remembered for their virtue, wisdom, prophesy or strength.  But there are surprises.  David’s sins are referred to (but without detail). Solomon is praised for his wealth and for a time of peace, but then criticised for “abandoning his body to women” (47:19) and letting the nation be split in two by civil war.  King Rehoboam is given short shrift and branded “the stupidest member of the nation” and “brainless”. Jeroboam too, is blamed for his sins leading to the ultimate exile of the Jews from their homeland.  So why include them at all?

Such lists of illustrious names, of which there are many in the Bible, serve to remind the reader that God calls people to particular tasks in each generation.  The occasional reference to sins and weaknesses is a reminder that none of them was perfect.  The point is that God has an overall plan for the world, and many people have had to play their part to bring it to fruition.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 March

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20 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 42-43

Most of chapter 42 and all of 43 are devoted to praising God for his creation, including specific references to the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, the wide variety of weather patterns, and the sea with its tides and monsters. These are all aspects of nature praised in the Psalms and other parts of the Jewish scriptures.  Perhaps they are picked out from the other aspects of creation because they are least easily understood – before modern astronomy, physics and submarines, who could explain how they work?

It is important to note that there is no hint here of worshipping these phenomena themselves.  Jewish and Christian thought is absolutely clear that there is only one god, the creator, and all these things are from him, having no spiritual life of their own.  The praise is directed to God in thanks for the wonder of the creation.  “To put it concisely, ‘he is all’” (43:27).  We are in fact encouraged to praise God as much as possible, for it can never be enough – “exert all your strength when you exalt him, do not grow tired – you will never come to the end” (43:30).

Such praise of God for the beauty of nature would have come more easily to people in former times than it does to us nowadays.  Shielded by artificial lights from seeing the night sky in its glory, having the mysteries of the climate explained by science, having “no time to stand and stare … beneath the boughs” as William Davies put it, we lose our childlike capacity for wonder.  Perhaps the rainbow is the one exception.  No matter that scientists can explain them in terms of refraction and diffraction,  rainbows lighting up with their glorious colours can still make a dull day fascinating and cheer the soul.  “See the rainbow and praise its maker, so superbly beautiful is its splendour. Across the sky it forms a glorious arc, drawn by the hand of the Most High” (43:11-12).

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 March

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19 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 39-41

The second half of chapter 38 was about farmers and tradesmen – people who work hard for a living (and with no suggestion there is anything wrong with that in itself) but have no time to become wise or educated.  They do not become councillors, judges or writers, or what we might now call celebrities, but “they give solidity to the created worlds, while their prayer is concerned with what pertains to their trade”.  These are contrasted in the next chapter with ‘scholars’ – well travelled men who study secular writings and religious texts, and meditate on God.  Such people, says this writer, will become well known and praised in their own day and remembered after their death. But they are few.

Through human history (and until quite recently with our modern obsession with record-keeping and fame) only a small minority of people became well known outside their own town, and fewer still were remembered beyond the next generation of those who had known them.  To die, be buried in an unmarked grave and mourned by few people – that was the fate of most humans, unless they were important enough to appear in official records that were retained for a long time.  The ordinary person – farmer, merchant, miner, baker or housewife – lived their life in a small circle with no expectation of lasting fame.  And countless millions have never made it to adulthood –  rates of death in childhood were historically far higher than they are now, along with miscarriages and still-births.  To live long enough to make a living for yourself was an achievement in itself.

That is the background of the verses in chapter 41: 1-4, where death is described as unwelcome for the rich and healthy, but welcome to the poor, very elderly or distressed. But the word to both of them is “do not dread death’s sentence; remember those who came before and those who will come after”, with a rider that “whether your life lasts ten, a hundred or a thousand years its length will not be held against you in Sheol”.  In other words, while a short life many be thought a tragedy on earth, it will make no difference in the life to come.

Maybe such wisdom needs to be heard by the parents who mourn for years for a dead child, sometimes keeping their bedroom exactly how it was on their last day; or erect a large and florid monument to their “Little angel”; or who spend their last penny and every ounce of energy trying to get “justice” when what happened to their relative was an accident with no one person obviously to blame.  Their grief is understandable, the unexpected loss of a close relative at a young age seems unnatural, but it is a credit to our economy, infrastructure and  health systems that such a loss is now rare.

But it takes a spiritual kind of wisdom to understand that there is a life beyond this one, in which the time we spent on earth is irrelevant.  Happy memories are more helpful than bitterness and anger, and an understanding that the deceased has “gone on ahead of us” may be more helpful than a sense of them having been “left behind”.  One of Jesus’ most comforting sayings is “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).


The Apocrypha in Lent – 18 March

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18 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 35-38

Today I am taking the short passage in Ecclesiasticus 38:1-15 headed “medicine and illness”.

These days there are many discussions about the place of various approaches to health.  There is “conventional medicine” by which we mean medicines prescribed by a doctor or sold by a pharmacist.  Many of these now are produced industrially although some still use natural plant extracts – arnica for bruises, for example. Then there are “traditional”, “herbal” or “natural” medicines which shun the fruits of scientific research and rely only on an older body of knowledge of the effects of various plants.

Then there are “alternative” approaches to treatment such as homeopathy, which is widely trusted by many people but equally widely regarded with scepticism by doctors who cannot see how a substance diluted until barely a few molecules of active ingredient may be present can be of any benefit.  With that, then, we are getting closer to “faith healing”, which for Christians means praying in the name of Jesus for someone’s wholeness, including relief from pain or cure for a disease.   No-one except a few charlatans suggests that everyone who asks for prayer will be healed, but enough do claim to have benefited from such healing prayer for others to seek it too.

So what is the approach of the writer of Ecclesiasticus to health matters? “The doctor, too, has been created by the Lord; healing itself comes from the Most High, like a gift from a king” (v.2). “the Lord has brought medicines into existence from the earth; the sensible man will not despise them” (v.4).   So the natural healing properties of plants are seen as gifts of God, certainly not to be rejected.  There was no pharmaceutical industry as we know it in those days, but “the chemist makes up a mixture from them” shows that there was a tradition of making medicines of some kind.

The writer then moves on to mental and spiritual health. “When you are ill, do not be depressed, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled, and cleanse your heart from all sin”.  That reference to renouncing sin may be uncomfortable to today’s humanists, but it is now generally agreed that physical health and well-being are closely linked to mental health, good diet, exercise and spiritual well-being (whether that is defined in terms of religious faith or a secular understanding of spirituality as mindfulness and self-awareness).

The benefits of traditional or modern medicines, then, are not to be rejected (whether we see them as “natural” or “God-given”), but experience suggests that their effects will be greater if these other aspects of our overall well-being are attended to as well.  The Bible has a name for it – Shalom. This word is usually translated as “peace” but meaning far more than the absence of stress and conflict and really means a wholeness of mind, body and spirit.  No wonder that “shalom” or “salaam” is a common greeting among Eastern people even today.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 17 March

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17 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 31-34

One of the themes that recurs throughout the “wisdom literature” of the Bible is the dangers of wealth, and they are reiterated in chapter 31 – but the emphasis here is not on the sin of the love of money as a form of idolatry, rather the practical problems it brings.  Worry about wealth causes sleeplessness (v. 1-2), and loss of popularity (5).

The writer also recognises that wealthy people tend to over-eat, and that in itself causes health problems “sleeplessness, biliousness and gripe are what the glutton has to endure” (20). Instead, he argues, even if you are rich enough to afford luxury food, “a moderate diet ensures sound sleep and a man gets up early in the best of spirits”.

Likewise, the dangers of drinking too much wine – arguments, violence and falling out with friends – are rehearsed in the last part of chapter 31.  But “wine is life for man if drunk in moderation” (27).  The following chapter is about how to behave as a guest at a rich man’s banquet – not eating more than others, not interrupting the entertainment, joining in the conversation but not pretending to know more than you do about the subject.