Pentecost and the Sun of Justice

Within the liturgical traditions surrounding Pentecost are nested brief references to Christ as the “Sun of Justice” or “Sun of Righteousness.”  These references, while easily glossed over, are not mere analogies nor are they inserted purely for their evocative, poetic value.  It is an image of Christ which comes from the prophet Malachi and it is brought to mind within the liturgics of Pentecost in order to, along with a number of other liturgical references to the Hebrew Scriptures, carry and convey a particular vision of what was happening in Jerusalem spiritually on the day of Pentecost in addition to that which was taking place on the visible, historical level as recounted in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.  These events in the invisible creation not only accompany and interact with what was taking place on that great day in the visible creation but establish the spiritual basis and trajectory, moving forward from Pentecost, for the understanding of the progress of the gospel of Jesus Christ as spiritual warfare.  This trajectory plays out in the remainder of the Acts of the Apostles and continues to this very day.  This proclamation of the gospel as spiritual warfare forms the primary activity of the Church until the day of Christ’s glorious appearing.

The reference to the Sun of Justice comes from Malachi 4:2.  Malachi chapters 3 and 4 describe the coming of the Day of Yahweh when he will visit his people and bring about the restoration of justice.  The beginning of Malachi 3 is quite clearly Messianic.  It describes the arrival of first a messenger or angel, followed by the sudden arrival of the Lord (ha adon in Hebrew) at ‘his temple’ (v. 1).  This language is readily applied by the Gospels to St. John the Forerunner and to Christ himself.  The Messiah is coming not only to his people in a general sense but to the temple and therefore Jerusalem.  When he comes, as Malachi 4 elaborates, his visit will be the visit of Yahweh himself, the Day of Yahweh.  The imagery of the blazing sun is twofold.  His enemies will be burned to ash and destroyed (v. 1).  Those who fear his Name will, on the other hand, experience the Sun of Righteousness as warmth and healing (v. 2).  The presence of Yahweh brings about the judgment based upon the disposition of those who experience it.  This text would seem to be connected to the events of Pentecost only tenuously, through Joel 2 as quoted by St. Peter in his sermon on that day which also speaks of the Day of Yahweh in similar terms, imagery which played out during the crucifixion and death of Christ.

The fire of the Holy Spirit, however, came to rest on the heads of the apostles and the other assembled faithful but did not destroy the unfaithful or wicked humans.  Rather, the apostles sought, with great success, to recall all people, beginning at Jerusalem, to return to the serve the living God.  This would serve to indicate that the enemies destroyed in Malachi 4:1 were not, in fact, sinful human persons or the Gentiles as a whole.  Clearly implied by the text and made clear by the liturgical texts surrounding Pentecost, that the apostolic proclamation was heard by all in their own language represents a reversal of the tower of Babel.  Though their presence in Jerusalem for the feast strongly implies the Jewish identity of at least the vast majority of their hearers, this clearly telegraphs the later apostolic proclamation to the nations and to the ends of the earth.  The reversal of Babel is not merely an issue of language.  Rather, it is a spiritual issue.  The judgment rendered when Yahweh came down to visit the people of his creation at Babel was his withdrawal from them.  After that withdrawal, the Most High appointed sons of God, members of his angelic divine council, to govern the various nations (Deut 32:8).  Yahweh himself then drew near to Abraham and from Abraham created the nation of Israel for his own possession (Deut 4:20).  These powers and principalities became corrupt and accepted worship from those they were supposed to govern and enslaved them (Gal 4:8-9).  Christ has rendered judgment against these principalities and powers in his resurrection (Ps 82/81).

The enemies burned to ash, then, in Malachi 4:1-2, as fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, are not human persons but spiritual enemies.  The language here is directed not at rebellious principalities and powers, however, but to one in particular.  There is one enemy that is here seen as defeated first at Jerusalem.  The Hebrew phrase translated as ‘Sun of Justice’ or ‘Sun of Righteousness’ in Malachi’s prophecy is ‘shemesh tzedekah‘.  It is translated quite literally, as this is the word for ‘sun’ followed by the word for ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’ in the attributive position.  What is not reflected in the English translation is that Shemesh is also the name of the Canaanite sun god.  It is also not reflected that Tzedek was the name of another Canaanite god who was seen as being a hypostasis of Shemesh.  Shemesh Tzedekah, then, is not only a metaphor but is the proper name of a pagan god.  Deuteronomy 4:19 identifies Shemesh, the sun, as one of the gods to whom Yahweh has allotted the nations for governance.

Further, this Tzedek is the pagan god who was worshipped for millennia as the god of Jerusalem.  The first resident of Jerusalem who appears in the Scriptures is Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20).  His name means either ‘my king is righteous’ or ‘my king is Tzedek’, depending on whether the latter portion of his name is intended as an adjective or a theophoric name.  The latter is more likely for several reasons.  First, Melchizedek is himself the king of the city and so an adjective to his human king would make little sense.  Second, the text of Genesis goes to some pains to indicate that he is a priest of the Most High God and then to identify this God as Yahweh.  That the text takes these pains within such a brief reference implies that the reader would have reason to suspect that Melchizedek might be a pagan priest.  Within this brief mention, there is little reason one might expect that other than his name.  Genesis is pointing out that despite his name containing the name of a pagan god (as do many names of later Biblical figures), he is in fact still a priest of the Most High God from before the Babel event, which was described only three chapters before Melchizedek’s appearance.  Finally, at the time of Joshua’s arrival in Canaan, the king of Jerusalem is one Adoni-Tzedek, which means ‘my lord is Tzedek’, clearly implying that including the name of the city’s god was a common practice in throne names at Jerusalem (Josh 10:1-5).  It is worth noting that it is in the battle against forces led by this king that Yahweh makes the sun stand still in the sky to allow for Israelite victory.

Unfortunately, the taking of Jerusalem by David did not put an end to Shemesh worship in the city.  In fact, it seems to have barely paused.  David’s son Solomon faced condemnation and the loss of most of the kingdom for having allowed the worship of other gods throughout Jerusalem, even in the temple itself (1 Kgs/3 Kgdms 11:4-8).  In particular, the worship of Shemesh Tzedekah continued within the temple courts.  This included a constructed throne chariot with horses, likely four, and an idol in the inner court.  At the time of King Josiah the great reformer and righteous king traditionally depicted with David in the Resurrection icon, he is said to have, “removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to Shemesh at the entrance of the temple of Yahweh, by the chamber of Nathan-melech the chamberlain, which was in the temple precincts and he burned the chariots of Shemesh with fire” (2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 23:11).  The text states that many of the idolatrous shrines destroyed by Josiah had been there since the time of Solomon (v. 13). Josiah’s reforms, however, were short-lived.  When Ezekiel the prophet in exile is taken by the Spirit to see what was taking place in the temple complex in Jerusalem immediately before its destruction, he sees various forms of rampant idolatry.  This includes two dozen men at the entrance to the temple, on the porch, the same location mentioned in Josiah’s destruction of the idols, with their backs turned to Yahweh’s altar and worshipping Shemesh (Ezek 8:16).  Even the destruction of the temple, however, did not put an end to this apostasy.  Recent archaeological excavations have revealed a number of synagogues dating back to the first century, the time of Christ, in what was Northern Judea and Galilee.  These are very likely places where Christ himself preached.  Nearly all of them feature a mosaic zodiac.  At the center of these zodiacs is a depiction of the Greek sun-god Helios either in human form or as a solar disk in his chariot drawn by four horses.

Malachi’s association of the ‘Sun of Justice’ with Yahweh and his Messiah is not syncretism but polemic.  The true ‘Sun of Justice’ is Yahweh himself who will burn up Shemesh Tzedekah and reduce him to ash.  The fire of his righteousness is enough to burn the sun itself.  This is a common tactic within the Hebrew Scriptures.  Likely the most obvious example being with the Baal cult, the imagery of which, especially the riding of the clouds, is frequently ascribed to Yahweh (eg. Ps 68:4; 99:7; 104:3; Is 19:1; Dan 7:13).  This is a means of representing that the power and authority ascribed by his worshippers to Baal belong instead to Yahweh the God of Israel.  This pattern continued into the early Christian period.  Many representations which depict Christ along with elements belonging to various Roman gods are not syncretistic or reflecting a pagan origin of Christianity, but rather just such a polemic.  The power and authority which formerly lay with these principalities and powers are theirs no longer, but now belongs to Christ (Matt 28:18-20).

Just as the result of all authority being stripped from these principalities and powers and given to Christ leads to his sending out of the apostles to all nations to make disciples, so also in Malachi’s prophecy does the judgment brought upon these powers lead to the righteous springing forth from Jerusalem, trodding the ashy remains of the defeated underfoot (Mal 4:2-3).  This language in regard to the advance of the gospel is paralleled elsewhere in the New Testament as well (cf. Rom 16:20).  The reclaiming of the earth from the powers who have ruled through sin and death begins in Jerusalem on Pentecost with Shemesh Tzedekah and then travels outward.  Everywhere that the proclamation of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the demonic powers travels, this truth transforms human persons.  Through those human persons it transforms cultures, societies, governments, institutions, and ultimately the whole creation.  The proclamation of the gospel, as enacted in the Orthros service and its reading to the North, the home of spiritual evil, is the truest form of spiritual warfare.  St. Paul sought to preach the gospel to Caesar precisely to break the back of the spiritual power who, standing behind Caesar, had enslaved the world to darkness and brutality.

Pictured at Pentecost we see not only the power of the gospel proclamation but also its promise.  In the Orthodox Church, celebrations of the apostles, including Pentecost, utilize the prokeimenon, “Their sound has gone out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the universe.”  On first blush, this may just seem to be a reference to the fact that the apostles preached the gospel all over the known world of their day, and since that day the apostolic proclamation has been carried beyond even what they knew.  This, however, is Psalm 19:4.  Even a cursory glance at the Psalm reveals that it is speaking of the stars of heaven.  The second half of this verse as well as the next two verses explicitly refer to the sun as proclaiming the glory of God.  In view then is the fact that the apostles carried the gospel to the ends of the earth but also that in doing so they had taken the place of the sun, moon, and stars which had done so in former days.  Just as Yahweh the God of Israel had shared his rule over creation with the heavenly host, so also does Christ now share his reign with the saints of God.  Just as beginning at Jerusalem the pagan gods were cast down, so also beginning with the faithful who had been gathered on Pentecost, the Theotokos, the apostles, and the other women (Acts 1:13-14), the righteous began to take their place in the heavenly places and share in the rule and reign of Jesus Christ, enthroned at the right hand of the Father.

5 comments:

  1. Fr., you mentioned briefly on why the Orthos Gospel is read while the priest faces to the north. I’m curious if there is anything significant to the rare times that the Orthros Gospel is proclaimed at the royal doors?

    1. The Orthros Gospel is read facing north on regular Sundays as part of the commemoration of the resurrection. The Eothinon Gospels are the resurrection appearances of Christ and so these are read toward the spiritual north as a proclamation of defeat to the powers. On certain feasts, the commemoration of the feast displaces the liturgics of the resurrection and so the Orthros Gospel is read to the people and generally is not describing the resurrection appearances.

  2. Thank you Father,
    It all make sense to me now, I wish I had heard this in my youth when I was contemplating the meaning of life, and at the end of a lot of thinking, my conclusion was that it is all meaningless.

    You have a true gift to explain these things with such clarity and economy of words.

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