Third Wednesday of Advent: Israel's Longing for the Torah

As we have seen, by the time of Jesus' birth, many of the Jews of his day were longing for their true King (their "anointed one"/Messiah/Christ) to come. When he came, he––as a descendant of David––would fulfill God's promises that David and Solomon would always have an heir as King of Israel. Following their long exile and oppression, the King would deliver Israel from their oppressors and enable them to once again truly be Israel. Once this Messiah would free them from their tyrants, he would enable them to become a true, faithful Israel by reestablishing the Temple as well as by giving the Torah its rightful central place in their life as a people.

It's virtually impossible for us to comprehend how much the Torah (the Law of Moses) mattered to many Jews in Jesus' day. It gave them the story of who they were: the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who had been enslaved in Egypt before being rescued by God and brought into the promised land. In their years there, however, they often failed to observe the law, and––as the Torah itself predicted––disaster came. The Temple was destroyed and the freedom God had given them from slavery disappeared as they went into exile.

We often mischaracterize the Torah as if it were simply God's way of setting a perfect standard no one would be able to reach through several centuries before eventually he would relent and make mercy and forgiveness available to us. While the Torah often did set high standards, that wasn't the point. It wasn't that God gave the Torah in the Old Testament as an experiment (which he knew would fail) in which people were required to attempt to earn their right standing with God. Rather, it was a pattern of life by which the people whom God rescued could show their gratitude, loyalty, and determination to live by the covenant because of which God rescued them in the first place.(1)

There were periods of Israel's history through which the Torah was not widely known and observed, and many of the writings during the exile look back and say, "We have failed to live God's way, and this is why this tragedy has happened to us." As we read through the biblical accounts of the generations from David until the exile, one person in each generation is given more of the weight of responsibility for the entire nation's observance of the Torah than anyone else: the King. Until the exile, the books of Kings and Chronicles largely judge the success or failure of king's rule by the Torah: did he do what God commanded or did he disobey, and did he lead the people to observe God's law or to stray from it?

With the wounds of exile and six centuries of oppression always before them, many of the Jews of Jesus' day had become painstakingly scrupulous in their study and observance of the Torah. It was part of their longing for God to set things right. As they waited and observed God's law, it was another dimension of their yearning for the true King to come. He would deliver them from the pagans who didn't know the Torah, didn't care about the Temple, and often forced the Jews to disobey God's law. In contrast to their foolish kings who led them into exile, the long-awaited Messiah would fulfill the Torah himself and enable all of them to do so as well.

As with the other parts of their longing we have considered this week, their hopes were going to be fulfilled, but the King who was drawing near to them would meet their longings in radically different ways than they could have envisioned.


A Prayer for the Day:

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*

A Prayer for the Week:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.*

Readings for the Week*:

*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, 82.