Monthly Archives: July 2015

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.

2 Chronicles 17-20

These four chapters cover the reign of Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat. For the most part he is a good king. There seems to be a contradiction. In 17:6 it says he “removed the high places,” but in 20:33, that although he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, “The High places were not removed.” The first was early in his reign and the second later, and maybe that’s the difference. I also found this:

Moreover he removed the high places and wooden images from Judah: 1 Kings 22:43 says that Jehoshaphat did not remove the high places. Adam Clarke explains: “In 2 Chronicles 17:6, it is expressly said, that he did take way the high places. Allowing that the text is right in 2 Chronicles the two places may be easily recognized. There were two kinds of high places in the land: 1. Those used for idolatrous purposes. 2. Those that were consecrated to God, and were used before the temple was built. The former he did take away, the latter he did not.”

Chapter 20 is an important chapter for understanding the essence of what a relationship with the living God should be. A vast army is coming against Judah, and instead of freaking out they seek the Lord. Jehoshaphat appeals to God’s covenant promise to Abraham, and that he would protect them if they called on his name, which they do before him at the Temple of the Lord. When our enemies, sin and death, attack us, our response should be as his:

12 Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

Exactly; we have no power. Our eyes are on the Lord because of the covenant promise he made to himself, eternally in Christ, and then to us in Abram, and through him to the patriarchs and eventually to David. Our confidence is rooted in him, not our performance or are abilities, or lack thereof, but in him.

A prophet confirms that Lord will indeed deliver them because the battle is not theirs, but God’s; the Lord is with them. And what is the people’s response:

18 Jehoshaphat bowed down with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the Lord. 19 Then some Levites from the Kohathites and Korahites stood up and praised the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.

Trust, worship, giving thanks leads to deliverance, victory and joy in the Lord. There could not be any better picture of a people who’s king is the Lord, who do battle in a fallen world, but the battle is not theirs but the Lord’s. And we know that because Jesus rose from the dead the victory is eternally secure.

 

2 Chronicles 14-16

These chapters tell us about the up and down reign of King Asa. In chapter 14 he does what is right in the eyes of the Lord, and God establishes his reign with peace and prosperity for the kingdom. But something happens to him, and by his 36th year he’s a different man, rebellious and stiff-necked. When an enemy sets itself up against Judah, instead of seeking the Lord for protection, he goes to another king. This works, but the Lord is not happy with him:

At that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah and said to him: “Because you relied on the king of Aram and not on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from your hand. Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen[? Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.”

What a great picture the writer, and thus God, gives us of the human predicament. By nature there is no heart that can be fully committed to the Lord. By nature, Paul says, we are objects of God’s wrath. So as the eye of the Lord ranges throughout the earth, this commitment is something he will never find, that is, until Jesus of Nazareth is born.

Asa is just one example of the failure of the human heart to do what is required to have a deep and abiding relationship with a holy God. I think the contrast in these chapters makes it even more powerful. Here was one of the great kings of Israel, but he could not sustain his commitment to Yahweh. In fact, his response to being confronted with his infidelity is anger! “He was so enraged” he put the seer in prison.  The human heart outside of Christ is wicked. His final indignity is an illness in which he also does not seek help from the Lord, “but only from physicians.” He would rather die, which of course he does, than submit himself to the Lord, a perfect picture of the sinful human heart.

Christ came to transform that heart from one of enmity to love, one that is enabled to be found as fully committed because the relationship is now as a father to a child, one of acceptance and love, not judgment and wrath. In effect, because of the work of Christ, we now want to love and follow our God and Father. Yes we fail again and again, but the failure doesn’t destroy us and drive us from him as it did Asa. In fact because of the depth of the mercy and grace in Christ, in the “it is finished,” the penalty paid, the debt canceled, God’s wrath fully satisfied in the perfection of Christ, our gratitude compels us. We can rejoice in the Lord because the relationship has been transformed by Him! We love him, as John says, because he first loved us. The power of the gospel.

In the earlier years of my Christian walk I would have read this completely differently. It would have been a challenge to me to more fully commit my heart to the Lord, and my failure to do that would have created guilt, since this is impossible. Such a moralistic reading only engenders frustration. The irony is that a gospel, Christ-centered reading engenders gratitude and an increasing desire to want to be fully committed to the Lord!