Revised Common Lectionary Commentary

Fourth Sunday of Advent - December 18, 2016

Saint Dominic contemplating the Scriptures

Saint Dominic
contemplating the Scriptures

Comments have been prepared by Chris Haslam using reputable commentaries, and checked for accuracy by the Venerable Alan T Perry, of the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. While not intended to be exhaustive, they are an aid to reading the Scriptures with greater understanding.

Comments are best read with the lessons.

Feedback to is always welcome.

Lessons for this week from the Vanderbilt University web site

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This book can be divided into two (and possibly three) parts. Chapters 1 to 39 were written before the exile, from about 740 BC to about 700 BC. These were difficult times for the southern kingdom, Judah: a disastrous war was fought with Syria; the Assyrians conquered Israel, the northern kingdom, in 723 BC, and threatened Judah. Isaiah saw the cause of these events as social injustice, which he condemned, and against which he fought valiantly. Chapters 40 to 66 were written during and after the Exile in Babylon. They are filled with a message of trust and confident hope that God will soon end the Exile. Some scholars consider that Chapters 56 to 66 form a third part of the book, written after the return to the Promised Land. These chapters speak of hope and despair; they berate the people for their sin, for worshipping other gods. Like Second Isaiah, this part speaks of the hope that God will soon restore Jerusalem to its former glory and make a new home for all peoples.

Isaiah 7:10-16

Assyria, under Tiglath-pileser III, is intent on expanding westwards. The kings of “Aram” (vv. 1, 2, 5, 8, Syria) and of Israel (also called “Ephraim”) have formed a coalition to resist the advances of their common enemy. They have tried to convince “Ahaz” (v. 1), king of Judah and of the “house of David” (v. 2) to join the alliance; he has refused. Now they seek to put a puppet king on Judah’s throne. God has commanded Isaiah to “meet Ahaz” (v. 3) as he inspects the water supply vital to Jerusalem’s defence. Isaiah tells him: “take heed ... do not fear ... these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (v. 4) who have “plotted evil against you” (v. 5). “If you do not stand firm in faith” (v. 9, trust in God) but rely on human counsel, you will be defeated.

God now speaks again to Ahaz: ask any “sign” (v. 11), any confirmation of my promise delivered by Isaiah – any at all in all creation. (“Sheol” was the subterranean abode of the dead.). But it seems that Ahaz has already made up his mind (v. 12) so, through Isaiah, God gives to the “house of David” (v. 13) not a “sign” (v. 11) to convince Ahaz, but one which speaks to future generations. God will keep the promise he made to David (through Nathan): “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16). “The young woman” (v. 14, most likely Ahaz’s wife) is pregnant; David’s line will continue; she will name her son “Immanuel” (meaning God with us). (This son was Hezekiah.) In a devastated land (paying heavy tribute to Assyria), where only basic food is available (“curds and honey”, v. 15), he will develop moral discrimination – unlike recent kings, who were deemed wicked, ungodly people. By this time, Assyria will have conquered both Syria and Israel (v. 16).


Psalms is a collection of collections. The psalms were written over many centuries, stretching from the days of Solomon's temple (about 950 BC) to after the Exile (about 350 BC.) Psalms are of five types: hymns of praise, laments, thanksgiving psalms, royal psalms, and wisdom psalms. Within the book, there are five "books"; there is a doxology ("Blessed be ... Amen and Amen") at the end of each book.

Psalm 80:1-7,17-19

This is a prayer for deliverance from Israel’s enemies, calling on God to “shine forth” (smile), be favourably disposed towards his people. God was seen as enthroned invisibly on the “cherubim”, the half-human, half-animal winged creatures on the Ark. From the mention of three northern tribes in v. 2 we can guess that this psalm was written shortly before the conquest of the northern kingdom in 721 BC. Vv. 3, 7 and 19 are a refrain: please take us back, God, into the covenant relationship with you! The nation’s current plight is seen as due to God’s anger (v. 4). Vv. 5 and 6 tell of the present evils besetting the nation; in contrast, vv. 8-11 recall God’s gracious hand in the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Why, asks v. 12, have you made Israel vulnerable? Please Lord, look after us! Vv. 17-19 seek deliverance: may you be with our king, “the one at your right hand”, so we will never desert you (v. 18). Give us strength (”life”) to seek favours from you. Be with us, “that we may be saved” (v. 19).


Romans is the first epistle in the New Testament, although not the first to be written. Paul wrote it to the church at Rome, which included both Jews and Gentiles. His primary theme is the basics of the good news of Christ, salvation for all people. The book was probably written in 57 AD, when Paul was near the end of his third missionary journey around the Eastern Mediterranean. It is unusual in that it was written to a church that Paul had not visited.

Romans 1:1-7

Paul introduces himself to his readers:

  • as “servant” (literally slave) of Christ, one under more than the usual obligation Christians have to Jesus;
  • as an “apos-tle”, one sent with a special mission of divine origin; and
  • as “set apart” to spread God’s good news.
  • (Paul does not reserve the title apostle for the Twelve.) This news of eternal life with God was “promised beforehand” (v. 2): it has been part of God’s plan since before creation. God made known his promise “through his prophets” (principally Isaiah and Jeremiah) in books held to have authority. (When Paul wrote, both Testaments were yet to be defined.) The “gospel” (good news, v. 3) is about one very close to God, “his Son”, here identified in two ways:

  • physically (“flesh”): of David’s line, so meeting the Old Testament prerequi-sites for messiahship; and
  • spiritually (“spirit ...”, v. 4): definitively stated by God to be the “Christ” (Messiah) in resurrecting him.
  • It is through Christ that Paul (“we”, v. 5) has received “grace” (God’s freely given gift of love) and “apostleship” (authority to teach and proclaim the good news) – with the objective of bringing people (especially non-Jews) to faith in God and thus making it possible for them to place themselves under God’s authority (“obe-dience of faith”). Paul sees the Christians at “Rome” (v. 7) as “called to be saints”: literally called holy ones, belonging to God and consecrated to his service. (The same Greek words are found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation Paul would have used, to describe the Israelite community. We, he suggests, are in con-tinuity with them. In v. 1, he sees himself as in being in continuity with Moses, Joshua and Abraham – all called servants of God in the Old Testament.) Finally, he wishes the Roman community both God’s “grace” (v. 7) and his “peace”, the Jewish notion of a right relationship with God – partnership in reconciliation of all to him, eternal well-being, and wholeness of life.

    Symbol of St Matthew


    This gospel is the first in the New Testament, but it was probably the second to be written. Scholars recognize that it borrows material from Mark, and from a sayings source containing sayings of Jesus and known as Q (for Quelle, German for source). The author shows an understanding of Jewish culture and religion not found in the other gospels. It was probably written about 80 to 90 AD, possibly for a largely Jewish audience.

    Matthew 1:18-25

    Matthew has told us of Jesus’ descent from David. He is the anointed (“Messiah”) king God has promised. Joseph’s and Mary’s families (“engaged”) have signed a marriage contract but Joseph has not yet taken her (v. 20) into his house. If Mosaic law on sexual relations was fully observed then, Joseph could have brought charges against her, and she could have been stoned to death (“public disgrace”, v. 19) for adultery (then including pre-marital sex). Joseph, while observant of the Law (“righteous”), is compassionate: he “planned to dismiss [divorce] her qui-etly”. God had intervened in the birth of some he has chosen – Isaac, Jacob and Samuel – but never before has he replaced the whole male role. Even so, the mes-senger from God points out Joseph’s role: Jesus is legally descended from David through him. In Aramaic and Hebrew, “Jesus” (v. 21) and “he will save” sound similar. Matthew is keen to show that Jesus fulfills God’s promise made through Isaiah (v. 22). In v. 23, the Greek word translated “virgin”, parthenos, is rendered as unmarried daughter in Acts 21:9. Perhaps maiden is a better translation; it has the same range of meanings as parthenos. Through Jesus “‘God is with us’” (v. 23) but Joseph names him Jesus, not Immanuel.

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