Nehemiah 11-13

In chapter 11 ten percent of the exiles are asked to volunteer to live in Jerusalem, while everyone else lived in the rest of the towns of Judah. In chapter 12 all the priests and Levites are named and given their orders. Yet in the final chapter, the same pattern of disobedience begins, and Nehemiah continues to try to get the people to do the right thing. He asks God several times to remember him for what he’s doing for his house, in fact four times in this last chapter.

This is basically the end of Israel’s biblical story, and it is a supremely unsatisfying ending. Even as God has brought them back and given them leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah, it isn’t good enough. The people still go their own way. When you look at the people of Israel and their story it seems like something is missing, that the story leaves off in the middle. All of the prophecies we’ve read so far, and the ones to come, seem stillborn, unless Jesus of Nazareth really was the Messiah, risen from the dead, like his disciples said.

Nehemiah 5-10

The wall is finally finished, taking 52 days to complete. Then Nehemiah sets about organizing the city since it is “large and spacious and there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.” In chapter 7 he lists the men of Israel who came up from the captivity in Babylon. There were over 42,000 men, so you figure with women and children there has to be over 100,000 people ready to remake the city.

In chapter 8 and 9 Ezra reads the people the Book of the Law, and they repent and worship God and rejoice in him. As they confess their sin in chapter 9, the Levites pray an amazing prayer that is an historical retelling of the history of God’s people. It always goes back to history, to real events in space and time, to real people who grappled with sin and death and judgement and covenant promise, God’s goodness revealed that they can never quite completely enter into. The prayer starts from the beginning:

“Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.

One of the fundamentally unique aspects of the people of Israel is that their God is the Creator of the Universe. This mitigates against John Walton’s argument in the Genesis books that ancient peoples would not have seen the Genesis accounts as creating something from nothing, that it was all about functionality. Very clearly in the 500s BC, people looked back at Genesis and saw God as Creator of the material universe. In fact all through the OT, God as Creator is asserted over and over again so as to distinguish Israel’s God from idols who can do nothing because they are nothing.

There is a profound irony at the end of the prayer. They started out as God’s people in slavery, and after 1000 years they are right back where they started:

36 “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37 Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.

So they promise yet again in chapter 10 to follow God, yet we know this is a futile endeavor because no matter how hard we try, no matter how determined we are, we simply cannot give ourselves a new nature. And it is only a transformation of our heart, a literal raising from the dead, that will unleash the shackles of slavery and allow us to truly love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. However imperfectly we may do this.

Nehemiah 1-4

I was again planning on reading all the way through Nehemiah before making any comments, but something stood out to me in chapter 4. The book is about its namesake, who is a cupbearer for King Artaxerxes. He is one of the Jewish exiles (the term Jew comes from this time when the exiles had gone back to resettle Judah), and inquires how his brethren are doing back in Jerusalem. He is told that, “The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” This puts him in a funk. He goes before God and confesses his and Israel’s sin. What impresses about he and Ezra is that they know God’s word, and they plead with God based on his covenant promises, and God answers.

The king asks Nehemiah what’s wrong with him because it’s obvious on his countenance, and he tells him. He asks if he can go back to Jerusalem to help rebuild the walls, and the king not only allows him to do this, but provides safe passage. Once there, he inspects the walls and comes up with a plan to rebuild them. Once they start the process, bad guys, of course, don’t like what’s happening and threaten to stop, and kill, them. In the midst of this, Nehemiah prays, and I love their response to the situation:

But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

They prayed and posted guards. This is always how the people of God work. It is not one or the other. We don’t pray and then sit around expecting God will do something and we nothing. On the other hand we don’t do and ignore God as if our own efforts work in isolation from his. God uses means, and that often means us.

Ezra 7-10

In chapter 7 Ezra enters the story. He is a priest descended from Aaron, the first priest, and a godly man:

10 For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

This is the kind of mentality every person of God should have, devotion to study, observe and teach God’s word.

Ezra comes from Babylon with a letter and charge from Artaxerxes to lead the people to follow the Lord their God, and they worship in the way proscribed. The last two chapters are about some of the men intermarrying with the women of the land, and thus sinning greatly against God. When Ezra finds out about this, he tears his clothes and hair and beard, and repents before God, and because of his leadership all the people with him.

They finally come up with a plan where all the men who intermarried will be identified and their women and children sent off. It takes them three months of investigation, but in chapter 10 they name all of the men who married foreign women, 110 by my count. This out of 40,000 plus exiles who returned from Babylon.  A small number to be sure, but before the Lord God of Israel, the standard for blessing is perfection. And as long as the Law is the focus of blessing, it will always be so. Christ offers another way. The law and our failure drive us to him, and forgiven and accepted by the just judgment of God on Christ, we now want to follow God’s law.

Ezra 1-6

I was going to read through the whole book, all 10 chapters, but something stood out to me in light of the discussions we had regarding God’s sovereignty in the problem of evil book discussion we had the last several weeks at our church. I picked a book by David Bentley Hart called, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami, since I’d read two amazing books by him previously. As impressed as I was by those two previous books, was as disappointed as I was by this one. There was the same elegant writing and big words, and flashes of insight and brilliance, but I didn’t realize what a radical Arminian he was. He took on atheists, but his real target was Christians whose theology and understanding of God he deemed unworthy, and especially Calvinists, for whom he seems to have an especially great disliking.

His problem is the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty and control of earthly affairs. If God has too much control (how much exactly that is, he didn’t, or couldn’t, say) then God is implicated in the problem of evil. If God wills what we perceive is an evil act, he is the author of evil. The problem with his thesis is that it is not at all Biblical. God can control human beings without destroying their nature, their freedom or moral culpability. It is a mystery that is so biblically accurate that it seems hardly worth discussion, but it obviously needs to be. This chapter is an excellent example of it.

Ezra is about the exiles return to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the rebuilding of the temple. God moves several foreign kings to make this happen, and one is the King of Assyria. In chapter 6 it says the following:

22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.

This reminds us of the verse in Proverbs, 21:1 that says:

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

On the surface it appears as if the only thing that controls a ruler is himself or his counselors, but in the Bible the Lord God is the sovereign ruler over all. The radical Arminian like Hart probably thinks this is fine in some instances, but not in others. If God moves the king to do evil, as we see it, then God is just one big blob of volition and complicit in the evil committed. But God moves human hearts, and people are still free and accountable. Our very consciousness is a testimony to this truth.

2 Chronicles 30-36

These chapters finish up the story of Judah as many are carted off to Babylon because the leaders and the people had become increasingly unfaithful. Good kings Hezekiah and Josiah restore the temple and celebrate the Passover, but it’s too little, too late. Other kings come along and do evil, and everything is ruined. Just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in chapter 36 we read these prophetic words which apply to pre-exile Israel, but point forward to Christ:

15 The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.

They mocked, despised, and scoffed the Lord’s Word, and 600 or so years later they would do this to the Lord himself. Jesus says the following and we can imagine he has these verses in mind when he says it. First in Matthew 23:

37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

Then in Luke 19:

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

If Jesus was thinking about the fall of Jerusalem and Israel’s exile to Babylon, he would seem to be connecting that to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 and the diaspora. The bottom line is God’s judgement. One day, whoever this refers to, will see Jesus again and proclaim him Messiah. The “Blessed is he” reference in Matthew comes from Psalm 118, a messianic Psalm, and everyone who heard him say that, the day he went into Jerusalem, would have known that. In Psalm 118:

22 The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

In Jesus’ triumphal entry his followers thought he came to be a king, but he came as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. Israel’s failure led to the world’s salvation.

2 Chronicles 21-29

I was going to just read through to the end of the book without much comment because the stories told here were covered in more detail in 2 Kings. Basically good kings, bad kings, punishment, repentance, etc. Chapter 29 starts the reign of Hezekiah, one of the best post-Davidic kings of Judah. His father Ahaz was one of the worst, so the contrast is stark. Something stood out to me as Hezekiah commands that the temple be cleaned and purified from the horrible things his father had done to it. He says his parents were unfaithful, they did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and he forsook them:

Therefore, the anger of the Lord has fallen on Judah and Jerusalem; he has made them an object of dread and horror and scorn, as you can see with your own eyes. This is why our fathers have fallen by the sword and why our sons and daughters and our wives are in captivity.10 Now I intend to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger will turn away from us.

Maybe it’s an anthropomorphism in some sense, but God’s response to sin is “fierce anger.” Sin and God’s response to it cannot be whitewashed. Wrath is a response his holiness demands.  So the people’s response is what God commands to address his wrath, offerings and sacrifices. As they brought the animals for sacrifice, a word stood out to me. Instead of saying they killed the animals, it says over and over that they “slaughtered” them. I think God communicating through his word wants us to know the ugliness of sin, and what is required to appease his wrath: nothing less than slaughter, which of course all points forward to Christ.

In our day we all but ignore the law and God’s demand for perfect righteousness, and what his justice demands if we’re to commune with him. The gospel isn’t nearly the good news it should be if we ignore or downplay this aspect of God’s nature. And think about God’s wrath being poured out on Christ to “save his people from their sin.” That’s a lot of people and a lot of sin! Perfect holiness demanded it, perfect justice was satisfied, and perfect righteousness and obedience fulfilled it. God doing it all! It is finished.

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