Today's Readings: Judges 2-3 | Isaiah 31 | James 1
Reading 1 - Jdg 2:12,13
"They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the LORD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths" (Jdg 2:12,13).
"The names are given as samples of the male and female deities Israel became prone to reverence -- Baal (Lord, Master), an equivalent of Adonai, also means Husband, and thus the name served to emphasise the sexual character of the rites practised. Properly understood, the name could be used significantly of the God of Israel (eg, Jer 31:32). Yet the time came when this use of it was proscribed because of its evil associations (Hos 2:16,17)... 'Ashtaroth' (KJV) is the plural (or, rather, dual) form of the name Ishtar, Venus, with reference to the appearances of that bright shining planet as both morning and evening star. The fuller title Ashtaroth-Karnaim (of the two horns) suggests that even without telescopes they knew of the crescent appearance of Venus. This name Ashtaroth is not to be confused with the Asherah (plural: Asheroth), commonly translated 'the groves'. These were phallic symbols of the kind which have survived as a feature of eastern architecture. The name means The Way to Happiness. It serves to illustrate that the modern glorification of sex is only a revival in more sophisticated form of the old nature religions, which rotted the nation life of Israel. When the records say that Israel 'went a-whoring after other gods', this is more than a mere figure of speech. 'Ships sink not by being in the water, but by the water getting into them,' writes Fausset trenchantly. God 'of our pleasant vices makes instruments to scourge us' " (Harry Whittaker, "Judges").
Reading 2 - Isa 31:5
"Like birds hovering overhead, the LORD Almighty will shield Jerusalem; he will shield it and deliver it, he will 'pass over' it and will rescue it" (Isa 31:5).
The only other occurrence of this verb is in Exo 12:13,23,27, where the LORD "passes over" (ie, 'spares') the Israelite households as he comes to judge their Egyptian oppressors. The noun for "Passover' is derived from the verb. The use of the verb in Isa 31:5 is probably an intentional echo of the Exodus event. As in the days of Moses the LORD will spare his people as he comes to judge their enemies. Passover was the time of Sennacherib's overthrow: Isa 30:29; 26:20,21; 29:1; 52:12; 37:36; Psa 102:13; Isa 36:10; Joel 2:23.
Reading 3 - James 1:27
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (Jam 1:27).
"Threskeia" = religion in its ceremonial observances -- as to external acts or rituals. For James -- the "ceremonial" observances of true religion have little if anything to do with what we might call the "act" of worship -- sitting, standing, praying, singing, speaking, etc -- and most or all to do with the practical faith of helping others! James is telling us: 'Don't go to the synagogue or temple or ecclesial meeting hall to look for pure religion... look for it in the simple deeds of everyday life!'
"If our 'religion' does not move us powerfully to put away all selfishness, and create in us a great desire to 'do good to all men,' then it is not 'pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father'. Truly, our conception of what constitutes 'doing good' must be enlightened and guided by spiritual wisdom and scriptural instruction; but the underlying motive force for all we do must be a zealous love for all, and a desire to help all, rooted in the love of God who points this out to us as the only possible Way of life" (GV Growcott).
TO LOOK AFTER ORPHANS AND WIDOWS IN THEIR DISTRESS: KJV has "to visit", but the word plainly means much, much more than simply to 'drop by to say hello'! In fact, James elsewhere disparages the attitude of merely speaking pleasant words while doing nothing, really, to help the one who is hungry or otherwise in need: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (Jam 2:14-17).
The Greek is "episkeptomai" = to oversee: James is citing the words of Jesus in Mat 25:36,43: "[The King will say]... I was sick and you visited -- or looked after (sw) -- me." The verb is related to the word for "bishop" (KJV) or "overseer" in Act 20:28; 1Ti 3:1,2; Tit 1:7; 1Pe 2:25; it signifies one who watches over -- as a shepherd watches over his flock -- with the connotations of protecting, feeding, and otherwise providing for. There are plainly both material and spiritual implications to this word:
Material, in the sense that "orphans and widows" signify those who may be in need of "feeding" and financial assistance, and God requires us to provide for them (Deu 10:18; 24:17,19-21; 26:12,13; etc) -- the beautiful story of Ruth, a whole Book in the Bible, is primarily devoted to demonstrating how one may "visit" the widows; and
Spiritual, in the sense that "orphans and widows" are those who have been deprived of fathers or husbands, and may need the guidance and instruction that such should provide. In short, the "shepherd" or "overseer" should provide natural food as well as spiritual "food", as needed. It is instructive to note that in James' exhortation there is no restricting of such duties to ecclesial "elders" or even to brothers: it is the duty of all believers to act as "overseers", and to help those who are in need.
The word "visit" may also signify to preach the gospel -- carrying the idea of spiritual instruction, mentioned above, back further: All the world are as "orphans" (they lack a real "Father"!) and "widows" (they lack a real "Husband"). The true practitioner of "religion" will "visit" them to show them the way of life. In Act 15:14 James (is it the same James?) says: "Simeon [Peter] hath declared how God at the first did visit (sw) the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name." Perhaps the ultimate act of pure religion is to help another in spiritual need find the Saviour! Why stop at giving a simple piece of bread when one can give another the One who is the Bread of Life? Why stop at "healing" a flu or virus when one can offer the dying man the ultimate "healing" of eternal life?