7 Mar 2016

Spiritual Treasures of the Old Testament Apocrypha

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Church, Church History, Discipleship, Faith, Jewish Backgrounds, Septuagint, Spiritual Disciplines, Tobit, Wisdom of Solomon, Worship
1611 KJV title page

1611 KJV title page

Treasury of the “Best devotional literature of all time”

The Apocrypha. For contemporary Americans, if they have heard of the term at all, have images of secret books along the lines of those imagined in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (these have nothing to do with the Old Testament Apocrypha btw).

For many Protestant Evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries the term brought up images of the dreaded Judiazing and Roman Catholicism. Evangelical apologists tend to exaggerate the supposed evils of these works.  This blog will take a very different approach.

At the turn of the 20th century, theologian Bernard Joseph Snell gave a series of four lectures on the “Value of the Apocrypha” to spell bound audiences in London. He noted the “persistent hallucination” that many contemporary believers have of these books.

Without arguing for the canonicity of these books he attempts to contrast modern prejudice with Christian attitudes from the beginning.  It is often difficult to understand the early church apart from what we call the Apocrypha, Snell argues, because of “the all but universal acquaintance with them, in one position or another, on the part of every branch of the historic Church.” These books have been “treasured” not because some historical inaccuracy but because they have fed the souls and enriched the souls of saints from the time of Paul to Martin Luther to the common Ethiopian in Africa that still holds the books to be the very word of God.  Snell’s remark is worth quoting,

[T]here are excellences [sic] in these Apocryphal writings, which may take rank with some of those of the Canonical books, proverbs worthy of Solomon, speculations as keen as those of Job, prayers as equal to those of the psalmists, prophetic aspirations which might have emanated from Isaiah. Surely this is no small praise!” (Value of the Apocrypha, p. 124)

The “Value of the Apocrypha” is its Spiritual treasures.  We all recognize that we find insight in lots of material that we read. Our homes are full of authors and books that are not inspired. Yet some of those works are rich in spiritual wisdom beyond imagination. David deSilva, an contemporary Evangelical scholar sharing Snell’s concern, writes that Evangelicals should read these books for this very reason.

The zeal to walk faithfully before God in the face of adversity, the commitment to choose obedience to God over succumbing to the passions or weaknesses of the flesh, the experience of God’s forgiveness and expectation of God’s deliverance–all these are strengthened by these texts, which one can approach with confidence at least as the best devotional literature to have withstood the test of time” (Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance, p.41, my emphasis)

There are many reasons to become acquainted with these books besides Spirituality.  However I want to highlight the Spiritual treasure that lies within these works known to Jesus and the early church. So I have chosen ten texts, limited to one from representative books, as ones that you should know. Many of these texts have been memorized, used in prayer, sung in worship, by believers in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Hebrew, Armenian, along with modern languages like German, French, Spanish, Sanskrit, and even English.  These texts are hardly isolated but for the sake of space I have tried to exercise discipline 🙂

Jesus of Nazareth once said, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13.52).  I pray for the wisdom to recognize a genuine pearl of Spiritual wisdom. Be blessed and enriched.

The Apocrypha is available in most English Bible versions except the NIV and NASB. I recommend the NRSV, ESV and TEV for good English reading.

The Apocrypha is available in most English Bible versions except the NIV and NASB. I recommend the NRSV, ESV and TEV for good English reading.

Ten Treasures of the Apocrypha You Should Know

Tobit

One of the most beautiful prayers, reflecting the wholesome Jewish attitude toward marriage, is from Tobit 8. It has been used in Christian weddings since we have information on Christian weddings. There are many other treasures in Tobit.

Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
and blessed is your name in all generations.
Let the heavens and the whole creation bless you forever.
You made Adam, and from him you made his wife Eve
as a helper and support.
From the two of them the human race has sprung.
You said, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
I am no taking this kinswoman of mine,
not because of lust, but with sincerity.
Grant that she and I may find mercy
and that we may grow old together.
(Tobit 8.5b-7)

Judith

Judith was loved and regarded as a model of faith in the early church (see the first century Christian Clement for this in 1 Clement 55). Her prayer hymn is magnificent …

I will sing to my God a new song; O Lord, you are great and glorious,
wonderful in strength, invincible. Let all your creatures serve you,
for you spoke and they were made. You sent forth your Spirit, and it
formed them; there is none that can resist your
voice. For the mountains shall be shaken to their foundations with the waters; before your glance the rocks shallnmelt like wax. But to those who fear you you show mercy.
For every sacrifice as a fragrant offering is a small thing,
and the fat of all whole burnt offerings to you is a very little thing;
but whoever fears the Lord is great forever.
(Judith 16.13-16)

Wisdom of Solomon

The Wisdom of Solomon was, doctrinally, probably the most influential of the books Protestants call Apocrypha in the early church. Its traces can be seen in Paul and the Hebrews’ Preacher more than once. Its hard to pick only one passage yet we must.  One lection was cited repeatedly in the early church as a prophecy of the Messiah. It is indeed a remarkable passage …

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his
life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”
(Wisdom 2.12-20)

Sirach

Sirach is another major book in the “Apocrypha.” The numerous points of contact between Ben Sira and Jesus of Nazareth, and his being quoted in the Mishnah as scripture lets us see how important he was in many Jewish circles. I offer one of his proverbs that is full of spiritual wisdom on fleeing from sin …

Have you sinned, my child? Do so no more,
but ask forgiveness for your past sins.
Flee from sin as from a snake;
for if you approach sin, it will bite you.
it’s teeth are lion’s teeth,
and can destroy human lives.
All lawlessness is like a two-edged
sword; there is no healing for the wound
it inflicts.” (Sirach 21.1-3)

Baruch

One of the smaller gems of the Apocrypha, Baruch, has numerous pearls. While on retreat with the nuns at St. Rita Abbey in April 2014, and we were doing the Daily Office we chanted Baruch 4.21ff which was also used in worship in the ancient church. I love this passage which gives voice to the personified Jerusalem.

Take courage, my children, cry to God, and he will deliver you from the
power and hand of the enemy.
For I have put my hope in the Everlasting to save you,
and joy has come to me from the Holy One, because
of the mercy that will soon come to you from your
everlasting Savior.
For I sent you away in sorrow and weeping,
but God will give you back to me with joy and gladness
forever.
For as the neighbors of Zion have now seen your capture,
so they will soon see your salvation by God …
My pampered children have traveled rough roads
(Baruch 4.21-26, all of chapter 5 is great too)

Song of the Three Jews (KJV)

Song of the Three Jews (KJV)

Daniel: Azariah & Song of the Three Jews

The Prayer of Azariah & the Song of the Three Jews are part of Greek Daniel. The Song is known by its Latin name “The Benedicite.” They are included in the “canticles” of the Old Testament that were frequently used in worship in the ancient church. Such beautiful faith and praise we find. John Wycliff, the father of the English Bible, wrote a Practical Exposition of the Song of the Three Men in the Furnace for the benefit of the disciples of the Lord.

For your name sake do not give us up forever,
and do not annul your covenant.
Do not withdraw your mercy from us,
for the sake of Abraham your beloved
and for the sake of your servant Isaac
and Israel your holy one, …
Yet with a contrite heart and a humble spirit,
as though it were burnt offerings of rams
and bulls, or with tens of thousands of
fat lambs such may our sacrifice be in your
sight today”
(Prayer of Azariah 11-17)

Daniel: Susanna

Susanna, another part of Greek Daniel and was incredibly popular with Christians in the early church. She is identified as the church herself and images of her frequent Christian burial scenes in the catacombs. It is sad beyond telling that modern Evangelicals do not even have a clue who she was. Her prayer became that of many a martyr …

O eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be; you know that these men have given false evidence against me. And now I am to die, though I have done none of the wicked things that they have charged against me!
(Daniel 13.42ff)

The Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is one of the most beautiful Psalms in existence. It has been used in worship (as a canticle) from the beginning. Some scholars believe it was used in the temple on the day of atonement. Martin Luther presented it many many times as a model for Christians as a prayer of repentance (there is considerable evidence that Luther regarded it as Scripture even into his later life). I wish I could reproduce the whole text but one of the most beautiful confessions repentance and faith in the grace and mercy of God comes in vv 11ff

And now I bend the knee of my heart,
imploring you for your kindness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I acknowledge my transgressions.
I earnestly implore you,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me!
Do not destroy me with my transgressions!
Do not be angry with me forever or
store up evil for me;
do not condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For you , O Lord, are the God of those who repent,
and in me you will manifest your goodness;
for unworthy as I am, you will save me
according to your great mercy,
and I will praise you all the days of my life

The Maccabees

The Maccabees were profoundly influential in the early church because of their courageous martyrdom. The Hebrews’ Preacher extolled them saying the world was not worthy of them. Second Maccabees 7 inspired many early Christians in the face of death. The Mother of the Seven was a legend for her courage in exhorting her sons to faithfulness in the face of torture and the hope of resurrection. Just a snippet …

My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with all your brothers
(2 Macc 7.27-29)

First Esdras

And finally from 1 Esdras 4. A famous passage about truth. Alexander Campbell even had it emblazoned on the masthead of the Millennial Harbinger! It is impossible to reproduce the entire passage so I will cite only one verse as the conclusion of this blog …

Truth is great and stronger than all things. The whole earth calls upon truth, and heaven blesses it.” (1 Esdras 4.35)

The treasures of Spiritual wisdom await discovery. Challenges to be faithful. Impulse to break out in praise. Exhortation to run from sin. The blessing of marriage to the end.  And so much more.  Treasure indeed.

Enjoy the Canticle of the Three Jews one of the oldest hymns used in Christian worship. It is in Greek, Latin, Arabic, English and other tongues. The song is about 12 minutes long, there is an organ at about the 45 to 49 second mark but the rest of the song is vocal only. Be blessed  YouTube Preview Image

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