A Strange Proverb

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; Lest the Lord see it, and it displease Him, And He turn away His wrath from him. (Proverbs 24:17-18, N.K.J.V.)

Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls? Is Solomon kidding? What are we supposed to do, rejoice when our enemy is making life hard for us? Oh, and in case we missed the point the first time, he repeats it by using different wording: “And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” At first glance, this sure does read like a strange proverb!

The proverb doesn’t even seem to line up with a couple of the most famous stories from the Old Testament. The first one involves God parting the Red Sea. In Exodus chapter 15, after God has parted those waters for the Israelites and then drowned the Egyptian army in those same waters, Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in singing praises for that victory. Was that great celebration scene not an example of rejoicing at the fall of an enemy? The second example involves David’s slaying of Goliath. In the wake of that event, the women of Israel sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands (1 Samuel 18:6-7).” Were the hearts of those women not glad that Goliath had stumbled?

Oh, and then there is Psalm 52:1-7, words written by David. As you read that passage, pay particular attention to the last section of it, the part where the righteous laugh about the wicked being uprooted from the land of the living. David says:

Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man? The goodness of God endures continually. Your tongue devises destruction, Like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. You love evil more than good, Lying rather than speaking righteousness. Selah. You love all devouring words, You deceitful tongue. God shall likewise destroy you forever; He shall take you away, and pluck you out of your dwelling place, And uproot you from the land of the living. Selah The righteous also shall see and fear, And shall laugh at him, saying, “Here is the man who did not make God his strength, But trusted in the abundance of his riches, And strengthened himself in his wickedness.” (N.K.J.V.)

Solomon’s proverb doesn’t line up with a certain New Testament passage, either. In Revelation 18:9-19, we read about the prophetic destruction of a city The Revelation calls “Mystery Babylon.” I won’t go into the various theories as to the identification of that city, but I will draw your attention to Revelation 18:20, which says concerning the coming destruction of that wicked city:

“Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!” (N.K.J.V.)

And would you believe that Solomon’s strange proverb even seems to directly contradict a couple of other passages from the same book of Proverbs in which it is found? Consider the following passages (both from the N.K.J.V.):

  • (Wisdom speaking): Because you disdained all my counsel, And would have none of my rebuke, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your terror comes, When your terror comes like a storm, And your destruction comes like a whirlwind, When distress and anguish come upon you. (Proverbs 1:25-27)
  • When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; And when the wicked perish, there is jubilation (Proverbs 11:10)

But now let me defend Solomon and what he wrote about responding to the downfall of an enemy. In Job 31:28-30, Job calls rejoicing at the destruction of one who hated him an “iniquity deserving of judgment” (Job 31:28-30). Similarly, the same David who gave us Psalm 52:1-7 said on another occasion that he fasted and clothed himself with sackcloth when those who witnessed against him were sick (Psalm 35:11-14). He also composed a special song and had the people of Judah sing it when Saul (who was surely David’s enemy) and Jonathan died in battle against the Philistines (2 Samuel 1:17-27). That song was filled with complimentary praise for both men. Lastly, in verses 10-16 of the one-chapter book of Obadiah, Obadiah harshly rebukes the nation of Edom for rejoicing over the downfall of Judah. Each of these examples can rightly be placed alongside Solomon’s strange proverb as being formed from the same mold.

So, as we can see, the Bible makes allowance for each kind of reaction when one’s enemy has fallen. This means that we must think harder than usual in regards to how we should respond during such times. I myself have pondered this topic a fair amount, and after doing so would like to offer a few observations.

First, rather than gloat over the downfall of our enemies, we should feel sadness over the fact that they became enemies at all. You see, if we are right with God, and if others are equally right with Him, enmity won’t be produced. Enmity only arises when one or both parties somehow gets wrong with God. This truth was what prompted David to pen that sweet song of eulogy for Saul and Jonathan. Rather than be happy that Saul was dead, David honestly felt sorrow over a relationship that had soured to an irretrievable point.

Second, Jesus said that we should love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who use us and persecute us (Matthew 5:43-45). He followed that up by saying that anyone can love those who love them, but if we want to truly be like God, we have to love our enemies and do good to them (Matthew 5:46-48). This means that God loves His enemies and expects His people to follow His example. And yet, even as God tells us not to take revenge upon our enemies, He also says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). In other words, whenever God (rather than us) brings down our enemies, that’s between God and them. Therefore, we shouldn’t feel a false sense of guilt over our enemy’s demise when we had nothing to do with making it happen.

Third, we are right to rejoice anytime God’s cause wins on earth. Since Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is done in heaven (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2), it is always cause for joy when God’s will gets done on earth. However, the reality is that oftentimes God’s will can’t get done on earth until the wicked people who are preventing that will from being done are toppled from their authority.

In closing, let me also throw in a quick word about that last half of our text passage. Did you notice the specific reason that Solomon gives for not rejoicing when your enemy falls? He says, “Don’t do it because you don’t want the Lord to see you rejoicing, become displeased with you, and as a result turn away His wrath from your enemy.” J. Vernon McGee, speaking almost humorously in his remarks about that motivation, says, “If you rejoice when your enemy falls, the Lord may turn around and start prospering that man. Then you will really be miserable.”

I guess that pretty much sums up the teaching, doesn’t it? Perhaps, then, Solomon’s strange proverb isn’t tinged with as much love as it appears to be. Perhaps he is simply saying, “If you want your enemy to experience the fullness of God’s vengeance, keep yourself humble when that vengeance begins so that God won’t have to interrupt it in order to deal with you.” As I said, that certainly puts a different spin on the first half of the proverb. But it’s every bit as much a part of the passage as the part about not rejoicing when the enemy falls.

Posted in God's Chastening, God's Wrath, God's Judgment, Revenge | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Are You in Bed With?

“Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.” (Revelation 2:22-23, N.K.J.V.)

The church in Thyatira was an active, vibrant church. Jesus Himself commended those Christians for their works, service, and faith (Revelation 2:19). He even said of their works, “The last are more than the first.” But there was one thing that He REALLY didn’t like about that church. The problem was, they had a certain false prophetess in their ranks who was holding sway over the entire congregation.

Jesus called her “Jezebel” and said that through her teaching she was seducing His servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things offered to idols (Revelation 2:20). How was she seducing those Christians to commit sexual immorality? She must have been encouraging them to partake in the idolatrous worship services of the pagan temples in Thyatira. Evidently some of those Christians were frequenting those services, perhaps in addition to continuing to meet for church and worship Jesus. That was scandalous because those idolatrous worship services featured “priests” and “priestesses” who led their congregations in lewd sexual orgies as a means of “worship.”

As for those Christians eating things sacrificed to idols, Paul taught that it was permissible for them to do that provided that certain rules were met. Rule #1: The Christian had to truly understand that an idol didn’t have any real power to corrupt food (Romans 14:14). Rule #2: Playing off rule #1, the Christian had to have a clear conscience about eating the food (Romans 14:23; 1 Corinthians 8:9-12). Rule #3: If the discerning Christian ate the food but in so doing caused an undiscerning Christian, one who didn’t have a clear conscience about eating it, to sin by following his example, that discerning Christian’s eating actually became sin because it caused that weaker Christian to stumble (Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:10-13). In the specific context of what was happening in Thyatira, those Christians were in sin for eating that food because some of them were doing much more than just eating the food. Again, they were actually participating in the worshiping of the idols to which the foods had been offered.

While there were legitimate prophetesses in the early years of the church age (Acts 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5), this woman in Thyatira wasn’t one of the them. Even if she did have the gift of prophesying, her prophesying should have been done outside the church because inside it women were prohibited from teaching (1 Timothy 2:11-12). It’s almost certain that “Jezebel” was a pseudonym rather than her literal name, but she was certainly cut from the same cloth as the notorious queen from Old Testament days. Lehman Strauss, in his commentary on The Revelation, even suggests that the same demon that had possessed the Old Testament Jezebel approximately a thousand years earlier possessed this prophetess in Thyatira.

Just as the male name “Judas” carries a negative connotation for good reason, the female name “Jezebel” does as well. The Jezebel of the Old Testament was the infamous daughter of Ethball, the pagan king of the Zidonians. When she married Ahab, the wicked king of Israel’s northern kingdom, she immediately set herself to the task of converting the Jews of the northern kingdom to the worship of the false god Baal (1 Kings 16:29-34). God, in turn, sent His prophet Elijah to fight against Ahab and Jezebel, and when Elijah proved very successful at doing so, Jezebel tried to have him killed.

In much the same way that Jezebel had plunged Israel’s northern kingdom into idolatry (1 Kings 16:29-34), the so-called “prophetess” in Thyatira was doing the same kind of thing in that church. And those Christians were heeding her! The situation wasn’t a recent occurrence, either. Jesus said, “I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent” (2:21). If that term “sexual immorality” should be taken literally rather than figuratively, it means that she herself was physically participating in those sex-driven worship practices in the pagan temples.

Consequently, since this woman had refused to repent, what was Jesus going to do to her? He was going to cast her into a “sickbed” and kill her children “with death” (2:22-23, N.K.J.V.). Interpreted literally, this meant that Jesus was going to strike the woman with a sickness that made her bedridden, and He was also going to bring premature deaths to those who followed her. If those who followed her were authentically born-again Christians, they would soon end up classified with the ranks of other Christians who committed “sin leading to death” (1 John 5:16-17; 1 Corinthians 11:27-30; Acts 5:1-11).

The lesson that we Christians should learn from what happened in ancient Thyatira involves those to whom we give an ear. If we are listening to (heeding, following) ungodly people and allowing them to control our lives to any degree, we are on very thin ice. To use the crude imagery that dominates Jesus’ words about the Jezebel of Thyatira, we had better not be caught in bed with someone whom God is about to judge. Therefore, let’s all examine our lives and ask God to open our eyes about any problem people to whom we are giving too much credence. And if He points out anyone to us and says, “Get out of bed with that person,” we had better do so before He ends our own lives prematurely.

Posted in God's Chastening, God's Judgment, Idolatry, Influence, Separation, The Sin Unto Death | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Did Paul Go Against James?

Eating meat that had previously been used in the worship of false gods was a major theological debate in the days of the early churches. The pagan priests would kill sacrificial animals, offer them as sacrifices upon the pagan altars of pagan temples, and then sell the leftovers to the local markets. Those markets would in turn sell the meat at discount prices. Because the pagan priests only sacrificed animals of the highest quality to appease their false gods, the leftover “barbecue” was also of the highest quality. And yet it was sold cheap because it was “used” meat that supposedly carried the spiritual taint of idolatry upon it. The big debate among ancient Christians was whether or not it was a sin to eat that type of meat.

Actually, though, this wasn’t the first doctrinal controversy that arose in the early churches. Some twenty years or so after the Day of Pentecost when the church age began (Acts 2:1-47), the churches found themselves trying to sort out what relationship the keeping of the Old Testament law had with Christianity. Some Jewish Christians who had grown up keeping that law contended that believing in Jesus did not alleviate the need for keeping the law. In particular, they felt that male believers should believe in Jesus AND submit to circumcision in order to get saved. Gentile Christians, by contrast, had never kept any part of the Old Testament law and saw no reason to begin doing so after believing in Jesus as Savior. To them, just believing in Jesus was plenty enough to experience salvation.

The debate was settled when a group of apostles and elders (pastors) met in Jerusalem to hear both sides of the argument (Acts 15:1-21). We now call that meeting “The Jerusalem Council” and it was presided over by James, who was Jesus’ oldest earthly half-brother, the writer of the book of James, and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. In the end, James concluded that keeping the Old Testament law, including its mandate of circumcision for males, should not be required for Christians. In other words, the equation for Christianity was “belief in Jesus + nothing = salvation.” That was different, of course, than “belief in Jesus + keeping the Old Testament law = salvation.”

In the wake of James’ decision, a letter was circulated throughout the churches of the day. That letter stated that the burden of keeping the Old Testament law would not be laid upon Christians. However, at the close of that letter, James added in that Christians should continue to abstain from certain things. The list included sexual immorality, the eating of blood, the eating of anything that had been strangled, and things that had been offered to idols (Acts 15:24-29; 21:25).

Okay, so per the official letter from James and the rest of The Jerusalem Council, Christians shouldn’t eat meat that had been offered to idols. Got it. But just a few years later Paul, who had been an outspoken participant at The Jerusalem Council, began to teach that under certain conditions Christians could eat meat that had been offered to idols. His take was that since a lifeless idol had no actual power, it couldn’t affect meat one way or the other (Romans 14:14; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Therefore, Christians weren’t in sin to buy and eat such meat.

To be clear, Paul did mention two exceptions to this general rule. First, if a Christian’s own conscience simply wouldn’t let him eat such meat in full confidence, that Christian would actually be in sin to eat the meat, not because eating the meat was sin for everybody but because that Christian would be sinning against his own conscience (Romans 14:14,23; 1 Corinthians 8:7). Second, if by eating such meat a mature Christian emboldened an immature one — one who still held to the erroneous belief that eating the meat was sin — to also eat the meat and in so doing violate his conscience, that mature Christian would be in sin for causing that weaker brother to stumble (Romans 14:15,21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13).

So, did Paul’s teaching on this highly controversial topic go against James’ ruling? No, it didn’t. What it actually did was clarify that ruling by elaborating on why James had given the ruling in the first place. Let me explain.

The Jerusalem Council primarily dealt with the question of how keeping the Old Testament law, including all of its laws against anything having to do with idolatry, affected salvation. James settled that question once and for all by ruling that keeping the law had no bearing on salvation. As for why James said that Christians should abstain from things that had been offered to idols (including meat), that was his way of temporarily promoting peace between the Jewish Christians who were still affording the Old Testament a place of honor and the Gentile Christians who weren’t.

What Paul did a few years later was revisit the issue as a way of explaining how eating meat that had been offered to idols could adversely affect fellowship between Christians. Even though he wanted it known that idols have no power to spiritually taint meat, he also wanted it known that:

  • Some Christians still didn’t understand that they had a Christian liberty to eat such meat and not be in sin.
  • If those Christians felt guilty about eating the meat because their own ill-informed consciences wouldn’t let them eat it in confidence, they would actually be in sin if they went ahead and ate the meat.
  • Christians who understood that the meat wasn’t spiritually tainted and could eat it in guiltlessness should nevertheless take their more undiscerning brethren into account in regards to eating the meat.
  • If a discerning Christian used his liberty to eat the meat, and in so doing emboldened an undiscerning one to go against his conscience and eat the meat too, that discerning Christian was in sin for causing his brother to stumble.

In all of this, Paul is conveying a very important principle, one that Christians today should make an active part of our lives. He’s saying that being a Christian isn’t always about claiming your rights. Many times it’s about being loving enough to lay aside your rights if you evoking them will somehow harm others spiritually. How seriously did Paul take this? He took it seriously enough to say, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). That, you see, landed him right back at the same position that James had decreed in his ruling. So, again, Paul didn’t go against James. Instead, he took the time to explain why James’ ruling had real spiritual value in terms of how Christians should relate to one another.

Posted in Choices, Christian Liberty, Discernment, Idolatry, Influence | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Radical Repentance

“Ezra” series: post #17

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have transgressed and have taken pagan wives, adding to the guilt of Israel. Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.” Then all the assembly answered and said with a loud voice, “Yes! As you have said, so we must do.” (Ezra 10:10-12, N.K.J.V.)

Some commentators suggest that the group who left Babylon and returned to Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel included relatively few women. If this assertion is correct, it means that marriable women were in short supply once the group arrived in Judah. Perhaps this explains why so many of those men broke the Mosaic law by marrying idol-worshipping women from neighboring lands.

Regardless of how the problem had been created, Ezra was the man who had to address it. To his credit, he began by going to the temple and commencing with much praying, confessing, weeping, and bowing down before God. Then he enacted the wildly difficult solution of commanding all the Jewish males who had married non-Jewish wives to divorce those wives. Not only that, those males were also to separate themselves from the children produced by those marriages. You talk about radical repentance! Fortunately for Ezra, he had a large group of people who supported him. As Ezra 10:1 says:

Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. (N.K.J.V.)

Actually, the radical plan that Ezra enacted was first proposed by a man named Shechaniah. We meet this man in Ezra 10:2-3, which says:

And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, “We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this. Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise, for this matter is your responsibility. We also are with you. Be of good courage, and do it.” (N.K.J.V.)

The fact that Ezra quickly agreed with this plan and set it into motion shows that he took it to be God’s will. Again to his credit, he was “prayed up” and “confessed up” to a degree that should have made discerning God’s will easy for him. There is, however, a minority group of commentators who think that he shouldn’t have gone along with Shechaniah’s plan. They base this belief upon Malachi 2:16, a passage where God flatly says, “I hate divorce.” Also, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, a New Testament passage, the apostle Paul says that if a lost unbeliever is content to stay married to a saved believer, the saved believer should continue in the marriage.

Admittedly, these two passages make for a compelling argument against what Ezra did. It should be noted, though, that nowhere does the Bible condemn Ezra’s actions. Perhaps special exception should be made for the specific problem that Ezra was addressing. He was trying to reclaim the spiritual purity of an entire nation, not just one married couple.

I myself am not persuaded that Ezra actually erred. In all honestly, both sides of the debate make sense to me, but in the end I’ll say that if the Bible doesn’t plainly condemn what Ezra did, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I do know that Ezra 10:3 says that the divorces were to be done “according to the law.” Presumably, this means that each divorced wife was to be given a handwritten certificate of divorce that would make her legally eligible to marry another man (Deuteronomy 24:1-2).

As for how Ezra set about putting Shechaniah’s plan into motion, his step-by-step order went as follows:

  • He made all the people, including the priests and Levites, swear an oath that they would carry out the plan. (10:5)
  • He went into a room adjacent to the temple and there he fasted and mourned over the nation’s sins. (10:6)
  • He issued a proclamation that required all the Jews throughout the entire region of Judah to assemble themselves together in Jerusalem within three days. Any Jew who failed to do so would have his property confiscated and be excommunicated. (10:7-8)
  • Once all the people were assembled, Ezra told them to confess their sin of intermarrying with pagan races and separate themselves from their pagan wives and pagan children. (10:9-11)

This great gathering in Jerusalem took place on the 20th day of the 9th month of Israel’s calendar year, a time which fell during the land’s rainy season. Even as the multiplied thousands of Jews sat in the open square of the temple to hear Ezra, the rain was coming down hard (10:9). This sets the context for Ezra 10:13-14, verses in which the people agree to comply with Ezra’s command but ask for more time to sort through the situation. They suggest that individual cases be examined on a city-by-city basis throughout the land rather than in bulk at Jerusalem.

Four Jewish men opposed the plan, but we aren’t told their reasons for doing so. They either didn’t think the delay was a good idea or they opposed the divorces altogether. Either way they were quickly outvoted (10:15). The heads of the families were then appointed as judges, and the case-by-case examinations began in the cities ten days afterward on the 1st day of the 10th month (10:16). Three months later, on the 1st day of the 1st month, the examinations were concluded (10:17).

When all the dust was settled, well over 100 men, including 17 priests and 10 Levites, were forced to divorce their Gentile wives (Ezra 10:18-44). Interestingly, Shechaniah, the man who originally proposed the divorces, isn’t listed among those who had taken pagan wives, but some of his family members are (10:2,26). He must have been a man of great conviction and courage to propose a plan by which his family members would be dealt with so harshly. How rare it is when anyone will side with God over his or her family! As for what became of the divorced wives and the children from those marriages, the Bible doesn’t say. Perhaps some monetary provision was made for them, but it seems likely that they returned to their pagan lands.

In conclusion to this post and this series, let me say that Ezra’s unabashed zeal for God’s word should inspire us all to up our game in that department. He was a man who was willing to go to a radical extreme, including radical repentance, if God’s word called for it. By doing so he brought revival to Judah at least for a while. As we learn from the book of Nehemiah, the revival wouldn’t last, but that wasn’t Ezra’s fault. He was a great man of God whom God used to spiritually reset the people of Judah. May God raise up some modern-day Ezras to spiritually reset these United States, and when He does, may we have the discernment to support them and do what they say. Needless to say, we need some radical repentance ourselves.

Posted in Backsliding, God's Word, Leadership, Repentance, Series: "Ezra" | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mourning Over Sin

“Ezra” series (post #16)

When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.  For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished. (Ezra 9:1-3, N.K.J.V.)

The feeling of joy that Ezra felt over leading his group of former exiles to their new home in Judah didn’t last long. Just a few months later a spiritual monsoon rained on the feel-good parade when some of Judah’s leaders brought Ezra some bad news. They confessed that many of Judah’s priests, Levites, and civic leaders had intermarried with the idol-worshiping races that surrounded Judah. Even worse, these priests, Levites, and leaders had caused their sons to do the same. This type of marriage, of course, was the pet sin that all of the 12 tribes of Israel had struggled with for centuries ever since the nation’s conquering and settling of Canaan. It was the primary reason why God had previously allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel’s northern kingdom and the Babylonians to conquer its southern kingdom.

By comparing Ezra 7:9 with Ezra 10:9, we learn that four-and-a-half months passed before Ezra was told about these marriages. This causes us to ask, “What took those concerned leaders so long to report the problem to Ezra?” The most likely answer is that Ezra’s faithful teaching of the Mosaic law had finally pricked their consciences. That’s the powerful effect that a true man of God conveying a true message from God can have upon people. Ezra’s ministry probably caused those priests, Levites, and leaders who had committed the sinful marriages to come under conviction as well, but they were too cowardly, embarrassed, or seared in conscience to self report their transgressions.

Actually, those men should have known better anyway. I say that because God had always been exceedingly clear in warning the Jews to steer clear of intermarrying with the races of Canaan. In Ezra 9:10-12, Ezra voices a general summary of God’s words and thoughts from passages such as Exodus 20:1-6; 23:32-33; 34:11-16; and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 as he says to God:

And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity. Now therefore, do not give your daughters as wives for their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons; and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your children forever.’ (N.K.J.V.)

As we read these words, it is important to understand that God prohibiting the Jews from intermarrying with the other peoples in Canaan had nothing to do with genetic racial superiority or inferiority. The issue was religion, not race. God simply didn’t want His chosen nation of Israel to become corrupted by the idolatrous ways of the Gentiles of Canaan. He knew that whatever positive spiritual influence such marriages might bring to those Gentile races paled in comparison to the negative spiritual influence they would surely bring to the Jews.

What made the situation all the worse was the fact that many of Judah’s spiritual and civic leaders were the ones who had encouraged the nation’s intermarrying by taking foreign wives for themselves and their sons. As that group of whistle blowers said to Ezra, “Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass” (9:2). How could God bless Judah when its civic leaders were living in blatant, unrepentant sin against one of God’s clearest laws? How could He bless its temple’s sacrifices and rituals when the priests and Levites who manned the temple were living personal lives in open defiance against His word? Not only was Judah’s sin pervasive, it was flowing from the top down.

It wasn’t just one group of foreign women who were enticing the Jewish men, either. Eight different races are named in Ezra 9:1: the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. Five of those — the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Ammonites — were part of the group of seven races that had historically defined the land of Canaan before Israel had conquered them and taken possession of the land (Deuteronomy 7:1; Acts 13:19). (For the record, the other two races of Canaan had been the Girgashites and the Hivites.) The three races that had not been part of Canaan’s original seven — the Egyptians, the Moabites, and the Ammonites — were longstanding enemies of the Jews.

In my next post, which will close out this series, I’ll talk about what Ezra instructed the people of Judah to do regarding their sinful marriages. Right now, though, I want to focus upon how Ezra himself responded as an individual. Here’s what he did:

  • He tore his garment and robe in a traditional act of mourning. (9:3)
  • He pulled out some of the hair from his head and his beard in another traditional act of mourning. (9:3)
  • He sat down astonished (appalled, devastated, shocked) for several hours. (9:3-4)
  • He fasted. (9:5)
  • When he did finally stand back up, he quickly fell back down on his knees and spread out his hands to God. (9:5)
  • As part of his confessing of Judah’s sins to God, he went into great detail about not only Judah’s current sin but also her past sins. (9:6-15)

As we can see, Ezra was absolutely mortified when he heard about what those priests, Levites, and civil leaders had been doing for quite a while. Even though he personally had nothing to do with the sins, he used his intercessory prayer to identify himself with his nation. The prophet Daniel had once done this same kind of thing (Daniel 9:1-19). The good news for Ezra was that he wasn’t the only one in Judah who understood the gravity of the situation. In addition to that group of whistle blowers, there was a whole group of likeminded believers (people who trembled before God’s words) who assembled themselves around Ezra to show their support for him as he did his mourning (9:4).

Several years ago I heard a local pastor tell a story about his childhood days growing up on a farm. He said that his dad once sold a calf to make some money. The only problem was that the calf’s mother mourned the loss of her calf for many days afterward. The pastor said that cow would just stand and bellow in mourning over that missing calf. Then he applied the story to modern times. I can’t remember his exact quote verbatim, but he said something to the effect, “When we reach the point where we mourn over our sins the way that cow mourned over the loss of her calf, then we’ll see see some true repentance and revival.” To this day, that’s the best illustration that I’ve ever heard about mourning over sin. So tell me, do you mourn over sin that way? Ezra did, and we would certainly do well to follow his fine example.

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Finishing a Job

“Ezra” series: (post #15)

Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. And the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road. So we came to Jerusalem… (Ezra 8:31-32, N.K.J.V.)

Ezra’s group left Babylon on the first day of the first month of the Jewish calendar year (7:9). After traveling for a few days, they set up camp for three days at a site near the river of Ahava (8:15). They left that site and headed for Jerusalem on the twelfth day of the same month. Putting all these dates together seems to indicate that the site by the river was located nine days out of Babylon. That would have placed it 100 miles or so from Babylon and another 800 miles or so from Jerusalem. Finally, on the first day of the fifth month, Ezra and his group completed their four months of travel and arrived in Jerusalem (7:9).

All kinds of things could have gone wrong on that trip. In particular, the group was carrying a veritable fortune in donated items and could have encountered murderous robbers and bandits along the way. Remember that Ezra had refused to ask Artaxerxes, the ruler of the Medo-Persian empire, for an armed escort to ensure the group’s safety. Instead, Ezra had confidently asserted that God would keep the group safe (Ezra 8:22). And God did indeed keep them safe. As Ezra says in our text: “And the hand of God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road.”

After arriving safely in Jerusalem, the group rested for three days (8:32). It’s interesting that three-day rests were part of the beginning of their journey and the ending of it. On the fourth day in Jerusalem, the group brought out all the articles from the offering they had collected in Babylon from Artaxerxes, his seven royal counselors, and the Jews (7:14-16). The articles were taken to the second temple where they were weighed by the group of priests in charge and officially recorded (8:33-34). Presumably, everything about the offering matched up perfectly to the inventory and weighing that had taken place more than three months earlier at the camp sight at the river near Ahava (8:24-27). That showed that the priests that Ezra had charged with protecting the offering had done their jobs well over the long miles of the trip (8:28-30). As for what we Christians today can glean from this part of the story, we can take it as a good reminder that offerings made to support the Lord’s work should always be handled with the utmost diligence, integrity, and accountability.

With the offering turned over to the temple, Ezra and his group proceeded to offer burnt offerings upon the temple’s altar as Artaxerxes had instructed them to do (7:17). For a sin offering, they offered 12 bulls (one bull for each of the 12 tribes of Israel), 96 rams, 77 lambs, and 12 male goats (8:35). These four types of animals were the same types that had been sacrificed as part of the dedication ceremonies for that temple 75 years or so earlier, albeit with differing numbers (6:15-17). The importance of this event cannot be overstated. Ezra and his group of new arrivals were worshiping in their homeland, at their temple, for the first time in their lives.

Next, Ezra formally delivered to the Medo-Persian satraps (local rulers) and governors (regional rulers) in Jerusalem his copy of the letter from King Artaxerxes (7:11-26). That letter was the official decree from Artaxerxes that authorized Ezra’s mission, called for that mission to be financed by Medo-Persia, and gave Ezra the empowerment to appoint magistrates and judges to judge all the people who lived in Medo-Persian lands to the west of the Euphrates river. To the credit of the satraps and the governors, they read the letter and threw their full support behind the Jewish people and the second temple (8:36).

With that, Ezra’s job of bringing together a second group of Jewish exiles and leading them to Judah was finished. There would be many more jobs for him to do in the days ahead, but him being able to check off that first big one from his “to do” list was monumental. Nothing he would ever do would be any more important. Neither he nor any of his group would ever see Babylon again, and that was a good thing. They were home now, really home, resettled in the land that God had given to their forefather Abraham.

Finishing a job well is always important in the eyes of God. In the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, we read that the Christians of Corinth, upon hearing that the Christians of Jerusalem had fallen upon difficult times financially, committed themselves to sending a love offering to them (2 Corinthians 8:1-6, 10-11; 9:1-2). For whatever reason, though, a full year passed without those Corinthians following through on that commitment. So, as part of his letter to them, the apostle Paul implored them to complete the job by collecting the offering and getting it sent (9:5). As he told them:

I suggest that you finish what you started a year ago, for you were the first to propose this idea, and you were the first to begin doing something about it. Now you should carry this project through to completion just as enthusiastically as you began it. Give whatever you can according to what you have. (8:10-11, N.L.T.)

Now let’s apply Paul’s words to our story from Ezra. What if Ezra and his group had gotten all stirred up about relocating to Judah, charted out their course for the trip, said, “Goodbye” to their friends and neighbors, but never left Babylon? Would that have been pleasing to God? Of course not. But that’s how so many Christians today operate. They receive a burden from God to do something, get off to a good start doing it, but then quit, leaving the God-ordained job unfinished.

Christian, if you have one of those on your track record, you would do well to revisit the subject with God and be open to what He wants you to do about it. It just could be that He wants you to finish what you started. I’m not saying for certain that He does, but if the job is still finishable, I’d say that the chances are high that He wants you to complete it. What was it that Jesus said on the cross concerning the job that God the Father had given Him to do? He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And may you and I be able to say the same thing today about the jobs that we are given.

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The Right Way to Move

“Ezra” series (post #14)

There might come a time in your life when God will relocate you. In the case of Ezra, He relocated him from Babylon to Judah by having him lead a group of Jews on that 900-mile, one-way trip. Since Ezra and his group had all been born and raised in Babylon, moving to a new land and living out the rest of their lives there was no small thing. Therefore, it’s not surprising that they took the time and put in the effort to make the necessary preparations before fully embarking on the journey.

Once Ezra received permission from Artaxerxes to make the trip (7:6-8), he began seeking other Jews to join him. In the opening verses of chapter 8, we find a list of those who accepted the offer. The list features prominent Jewish families and their heads. Most of the people listed were related to the families who had been part of the group that had been led by Zerubbabel. Obviously, the families who had made up that group had left relatives behind in Babylon. In all, Ezra’s group consisted of 1,496 men. If we add in women and children, the total number of people was probably somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. While that number seems impressive, it was a far cry from the almost 50,000 people who had joined that first group.

After traveling a few days — perhaps 9 days according to the math we deduce by taking Ezra 7:9, 8:15, and 8:31 all into account — Ezra had his group set up camp for three days at a site near a river in the area of Ahava. Before launching off fully toward Judah, Ezra wanted to get a better idea of just exactly who he had with him. It was then that he realized that there were no Levites (members of the tribe of Levi) in his group. That was a major problem because, per the Mosaic law, the Levites were to be the caretakers of the temple (Numbers 3:5-8). Ezra did have priests with him, and priests were also from the tribe of Levi, but the duties of the priests and the Levites weren’t the same. Zerubbabel’s group, by comparison, had included 74 Levites (2:40).

Ezra’s solution to his shortage of Levites was to send eleven trusted men to the city of Casiphia. The fact that he seemed to know that a group of Levites lived in Casiphia might imply that it was a city inhabited by Levites and the Nethinim. The Nethinim, as I explained in post #5 from this series, were the temple workers who performed the lowliest jobs in the temple, jobs neither the priests nor the Levites did. Ezra instructed his men to speak to Iddo, the leader of the people of Casiphia, and ask him to help recruit Levites and members of the Nethinim to travel to Jerusalem and become servants in the second temple (8:17).

And did Ezra’s efforts to recruit more help work? Yes. 38 Levites and 220 Nethinim accepted the call and came and joined the group (8:18-20). Following the arrival of these men in camp, Ezra proclaimed a fast by which he sought the Lord’s guidance and protection for the potentially dangerous trip (8:21). By Ezra’s own admission, he would have been embarrassed to ask King Artaxerxes for a royal escort of soldiers because he had previously told Artaxerxes that God would keep the group safe (8:22).

Next, Ezra selected a group of priests and Levites and gave them the job of weighing all the items that had been donated by Artaxerxes and others to finance the trip. We’re talking about approximately 25 tons of silver, 7,500 pounds of gold articles, 7,500 pounds of silver articles, 20 bowls of gold, and two articles of polished bronze. Bible scholar Charles Ryrie estimates that the haul would be worth around $20 million today. The same men who weighed all the items were also given the responsibility of guarding them over the duration of the four-month trip.

So, as we come to the close of this post, how can we apply this part of the book of Ezra to us today? My answer is that we can learn that God doesn’t want us haphazardly rushing into major moves. Even if we know for certain that He is the one saying, “Go,” He has a certain way in which He wants us to do the going. Whether we need to finish unfinished business or tie up loose ends, there is no need to rush off in a haste that foregoes proper preparation. The goal is mark off all the items on God’s check list for our leaving, not try to set a land speed record getting to where He is taking us. Like Ezra putting in the time to sign up those workers and ensure that those treasury items were counted and protected, we should make sure that we aren’t leaving anything or anyone out even as we are leaving out. Ezra never regretted taking a few days to seek out those temple workers and see to those items that had been donated, and we won’t regret taking the time to do whatever it is that we need to do, either.

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Fresh Help

“Ezra” series: (post #13)

Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah…..this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. On the first day of the month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 7:1,6-10, N.K.J.V.)

Moses, the great leader of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, has died. David, the man who had the vision to build Israel’s first temple, has passed away. Elijah, the miracle-working prophet who took on the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, has been taken up into heaven by way of a chariot of fire. Jesus, in His resurrection body, has ascended back up to heaven. A faithful pastor, who has led his church for more than thirty years, has retired. In each of these cases, what is needed if God’s work is to continue? Answer: fresh help.

Here’s what fresh help looks like:

  • Joshua followed Moses as Israel’s leader.
  • Solomon ran with David’s vision and made it a reality.
  • Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle for ministry.
  • The apostles, each one empowered by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, carried Jesus’ ministry into all the known world.
  • A new pastor takes over the reigns of the church whose pastor retired.

There is a gap of approximately 58 years between the close of Ezra chapter 6 and the opening of chapter 7. (The story of the Bible’s book of Esther actually takes place inside that gap of time). Those 58 years saw the deaths of Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other leaders who built the second temple in Jerusalem. So, even as the priests in Jerusalem continued to employ the second temple’s altar to offer up the sacrifices required by the Mosaic law, and even as the other temple workers (Levites, singers, gatekeepers, etc.) continued to do their jobs, an infusion of fresh spiritual help was needed. Also, the protective walls that had once surrounded Jerusalem still needed to be rebuilt (4:12). That meant that an infusion of fresh manual labor was needed as well.

Here, then, is where we are finally introduced to the man Ezra. Have you noticed that we are over halfway through his book and he hasn’t entered the storyline yet? That autobiographical oddity gets fixed with the opening verse of chapter 7 as Ezra walks onto the stage. Not only will he himself make the long trip from his home in Babylon to Jerusalem and become Judah’s new leader, he will take a second group of fellow exiles with him. And when he and his group arrive in Jerusalem, they will be carrying with them money, supplies, energy, zeal, and a new decree from the ruler of the empire. Perhaps most importantly, Ezra will be carrying a holy burden to teach the people how to keep the totality of the Mosaic law, not just the parts that had to do with the temple and offering up sacrifices.

So, who exactly was Ezra and what made him qualified to play such a role in Judah? First, he was a direct descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother and Israel’s original High Priest). That made him not just a priest but a member of the High Priestly line (7:1-5,11-12). How’s that for a spiritual heritage? Second, he was also a scribe (7:6,11-12). The scribes were experts at teaching the Mosaic law. Unlike the prophets, they didn’t receive new revelations from God, but they did help the people understand and apply the old ones. What all this means, of course, is that Ezra, was a man whose life centered around God’s word. The moment he hit town in Jerusalem, school went into session, and the coursework was that extensive body of law that God had long ago given to Moses as a way of creating Israel’s national network of moral law, civil law, and ritual law.

Despite the fact that Ezra was born in Babylon, he was brought up studying the Jewish scriptures. He was able to do that because the Jewish priests and scribes who were deported from Judah to Babylon when the Babylonians conquered Judah carried their scrolls along with them to Babylon. Since there was no Jewish temple in Babylon, the priests had no way there of doing the jobs for which they had been trained. Apparently, that was what prompted Ezra to lay the priestly calling of his life aside and focus instead upon the scribal calling of it. To use an old cliche, he took the lemons that life gave him and used them to make lemonade. As our text says:

For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. (7:10, N.K.J.V.)

At this point, it is worth noting that God’s work usually takes place in ordered stages. Before there was a new temple and a new priesthood in Jerusalem, there wasn’t much need for a scholarly scribe such as Ezra to go there. He could have talked to the people of Judah all day long about the intricacies of the Mosaic law, but if there was no temple or priesthood by which the law’s required sacrifices, rites, and rituals could be performed, his teachings would have been in vain. For this reason, Zerubbabel and Jeshua had to first finish the jobs of building a new temple and establishing a new priesthood before the work was ready to be lifted to the next level by Ezra.

It is also worth noting that it was Ezra who took the initiative to assemble a new group of Jews to relocate from Babylon to Jerusalem. As our text passage says, the Medo-Persian king (Artaxerxes Longimanus) granted him all his request (7:6). Evidently, Ezra approached Artaxerxes and respectfully asked his permission to lead a group to Jerusalem. You’ll recall that with that first group that had made the trip, Cyrus the Great — at the stirring of God (1:1) and perhaps in compliance with the counsel of the elderly Jewish prophet Daniel — began the whole operation by issuing a decree stating that any Jew who wanted to go to Judah and help build a new temple in Jerusalem could do so.

After having been granted permission by Artaxerxes, Ezra and his group departed from Babylon in 458 B.C. Ezra carried with him an official decree from Artaxerxes. In terms of the historical lineage of Artaxerxes, he had succeeded Xerxes (Ahasuerus), who had succeeded the Darius who plays such a prominent role in the previous chapter. As for what the decree from Artaxerxes said, Ezra provides us with a copy of it (7:11-26). Here are ten highlights from the document:

  • Any Jew who wanted to travel to Jerusalem with Ezra could do so. This included any priests and Levites. (7:11-13)
  • Ezra was being sent as a way of conducting an inquiry as to how well the citizens of Judah at large and the citizens of Jerusalem in particular were keeping the Mosaic law. (7:14)
  • Artaxerxes and his ruling council of seven gave Ezra a generous monetary offering of silver and gold. (7:15)
  • Ezra’s fellow Jews, whether they chose to remain in Babylon or make the trip to Judah, were allowed to contribute silver and gold to the cause. (7:16)
  • Ezra and his group were to use the money to buy bulls, rams, lambs, and other items necessary to offer sacrifices upon the altar of the temple in Jerusalem. (7:17)
  • Whatever money was left over from the purchasing of those items could be used at the group’s discretion as long as the expenditure was in keeping with God’s will. (7:18)
  • Artaxerxes gave Ezra the remaining items from Solomon’s temple that hadn’t been carried back to Jerusalem by Zerubbabel as part of the first trip. (7:19; 1:7-11)
  • If Ezra encountered any further monetary needs, the Medo-Persian treasuries that lay west of the Euphrates river were to grant him whatever amount he needed up to 7.500 pounds of silver, 500 bushels of wheat, 550 gallons of wine, 550 gallons of olive oil, and an unlimited supply of salt. (7:20-22)
  • Those from Ezra’s group who would serve in the temple in any capacity (priests, singers, Levites, gatekeepers, or any other type of temple workers) would be exempt from paying taxes to the Medo-Persian government. (7:24)
  • Once Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was authorized to appoint magistrates and judges to serve as judges over the people who lived in Medo-Persian territory west of the Euphrates river. (7:25)

Such a magnanimous decree toward Ezra and his group was clear evidence that God was still working in the hearts of the rulers of Medo-Persia to get them to bestow great blessings upon the Jews. The current of favor that had begun with Cyrus the Great and had flowed through Darius was still continuing to flow through Artaxerxes. Ezra, for his part, could not help but sing God’s praises for the letter of authorization that he carried with him. In the closing two verses of the chapter, he says:

Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes. So I was encouraged as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me. (7:27-28, N.K.J.V.)

Please don’t miss that phrase in verse 28: “the hand of the Lord my God was upon me.” Ezra also uses it (or something similar to it) in verses 6 and 9 of the chapter. Then he uses it again in verses 18 and 22 of the next chapter. Clearly, he viewed the protective hand of God’s favor as being the cause of his success. For that matter, you and I would do well to follow his example. Acts 17:28 says that it is in God that we live and move and have our being (N.K.J.V.). That means that not one of us can take a next breath without God’s help. Keep this in mind anytime you are getting a lot done, people are going out of their way to support you, and prosperity is flowing your way. Remember that God is the ultimate source of all that good favor, and you should sing His praises for it just as Ezra did.

Posted in God's Omnipotence, God's Timing, God's Provision, God's Sovereignty, God's Will, God's Word, God's Work, Leadership, Ministry, Pastors, Praise, Prosperity, Series: "Ezra", Service, Thankfulness | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Completion of the Second Temple

“Ezra” series: (post #12)

Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. (Ezra 6:15-16, N.K.J.V.)

Once the prophets Haggai and Zechariah had spurred the people of Judah to resume the construction of the temple, the building was finished some four years later (4:24; 6:15). The completion came 21 years after the temple’s foundation had been laid. A grand day of celebratory dedication was held in which 100 bulls, 200 rams, and 400 lambs were offered upon the temple’s altar as sacrifices (6:16-17). Also, 12 male goats were offered as sin offerings, one goat to represent each of the 12 tribes of Israel (6:17).

As impressive as all that sacrificing was, it paled in comparison to the countless number of sheep and oxen that had been sacrificed in honor of Solomon having The Ark of the Covenant brought into the first temple and placed inside that temple’s Holy of Holies room (1 Kings 8:1-9). Additionally, no less than 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep had been sacrificed as peace offerings during that temple’s formal dedication (1 Kings 8:62-63).

The fact that 12 goats were offered to represent each of Israel’s 12 tribes at the dedication of the second temple is significant. Why were 12 goats sacrificed when the kingdom of Judah consisted of only two tribes (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin)? The best explanation is that the two tribes of Judah understood perfectly that the nation of Israel as a whole was still 12 tribes. Even though the 10 tribes of the nation’s northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians more than a century earlier, with the citizens of those tribes being deported to various foreign lands by the Assyrians, those ten tribes hadn’t ceased to exist in God’s eyes. Even in the New Testament age, which wouldn’t begin until many centuries later, the one nation of Israel still thought of itself as being 12 tribes, albeit 12 tribes scattered abroad by then (James 1:1).

Now that the new temple was fully “open for business,” the priests and the Levites who would serve in it needed to be assigned their work shifts. That called for those two different categories of workers to be slotted into the various divisions that had been such a prominent feature of the former temple (Numbers 3:6; 8:9; 1 Chronicles 23:6; 24:1; 2 Chronicles 35:5). The creating of these new divisions was done either following the celebratory dedication or perhaps just prior to it (6:18).

The new temple was completed in the month of Adar, which was the 12th month of the Jewish calendar year (6:15). Since the Mosaic law required that the Jewish Passover feast be held on the 14th day of the following month (the first month of the year), the people of Judah observed the Passover the next month (6:19). Presumably, this was the first Passover they had observed since being conquered and deported by the Babylonians.

The new temple being fully operational and fully staffed made for a perfect opportunity for Passover to be reinstituted. After the priests and the Levites had ritually purified themselves, thousands of Passover lambs were slaughtered, one lamb to represent each household of Judah (6:20; Exodus 12:1-14, 21-28; Leviticus 23:4-5). Following the day of Passover, the people then immediately segued into the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; Leviticus 23:6-8), which by law followed the day of Passover. That feast lasted for seven days (6:21-22).

Interestingly, the citizens of Judah invited a group of outsiders to enjoy Passover with them. Ezra describes these outsiders as those “who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel” (6:21). Two possible identifications have been offered for these outsiders. First, they could have been Gentiles who had proselytized themselves to Judaism by renouncing their idolatry and allowing their males to undergo Jewish circumcision. Second, they could have been the descendants of Jews who had escaped being deported to Babylon, but had taken up the idolatrous ways of the Canaanites while the fellow countrymen were living in exile in Babylon. If this second identification is the correct one, those descendants would have had to repent of their compromising ways, separate themselves from their neighbors who practiced idolatry, and rededicate themselves to Israel’s one true and living God.

At this point in Ezra’s storyline, special mention is made of the Lord turning the heart of the King of Assyria toward Judah (6:22). Because the Medo-Persians had conquered the Assyrians on their way to becoming the leading power in the world, the title “the King of Assyria” must refer to King Darius, who was the current ruler of the Medo-Persian empire. Of course, evidence of Darius’ favor toward Judah had already been seen in his agreeing to finance the finishing of Jerusalem’s new temple (6:3-12). Perhaps, then, God inspired Ezra to call Darius “the King of Assyria” at this juncture of the book as a way of showing that He was going to work through the restored southern kingdom to also restore at least a remnant of the northern kingdom.

As for the new temple, which is known historically as the second temple or Zerubbabel’s Temple, it was not nearly as exquisitely impressive as Jerusalem’s first temple (Solomon’s temple) had been. It was, however, a bit larger in sheer size. Per the specifications of Cyrus the Great’s decree, the second temple was 60 cubits high and 60 cubits wide (Ezra 5:3). The first temple, by comparison, had been 30 cubits high, 20 cubits wide, and 60 cubits long (1 Kings 6:2). The second temple featured three rows of heavy stones and one row of new timber (Ezra 5:8; 6:4).

There is no scriptural evidence to suggest that the Ark of the Covenant that sat in the first temple’s Holy of Holies room ever sat in the Holy of Holies room of the second temple. Perhaps this explains why there is no mention made of God’s glory filling the second temple the way it had the first temple (2 Chronicles 7:2). Scholars and archaeologists have long debated the whereabouts of the “lost” Ark. All that anybody can say with certainty is that it went missing sometime during the Babylonian conquering of Jerusalem. In consideration of the fact that the Babylonians so carefully preserved the other looted items from Solomon’s temple (Daniel 5:1-1; Ezra 1:7-11), it seems unthinkable that they would have destroyed or misplaced the Ark of the Covenant. It seems more likely that Jerusalem’s priests hid the Ark somewhere so that the Babylonians couldn’t get their hands on it. But if that was the case, why didn’t Zerubbabel, Jeshua, or someone else from that group of exiles who returned to Judah from Babylon know where the Ark was hidden, retrieve it, and place it inside the new temple?

Whether it was the lack of the Ark, the inferior number of sacrificed animals at the dedication, or just the new temple’s look, something about it caused the elderly Jews who had seen Solomon’s temple when they were young to mourn. If you recall, Ezra has previously mentioned that this group had first mourned when the new temple’s foundation had been laid laid (Ezra 3:12-13), and Haggai indicates that they mourned again when the temple was completed (Haggai 2:1-3). God, however, wasn’t mourning. To the contrary, He was excited about the new temple. Speaking through Zechariah, He told the people not to despise the day of small beginnings (Zechariah 4:8-10), and speaking through Haggai, He told them that the glory of the second temple would be greater than the glory of the first one (Haggai 2:9).

How would such future glory be possible? One answer centers around a man named Herod the Great. When the Romans would ultimately conquer Judah and take control of Jerusalem, they would place Herod the Great in charge of the region. He, as it would turn out, would be a great builder. As such, he would set himself to the task of expanding and completely overhauling Jerusalem’s second temple in order to make it as awe-inspiring as its first one had been.

With that said, though, it is a second answer that best answers the question. That second answer centers around Jesus. Jesus, in a human body, never visited the first temple, but He did visit the second temple. You see, it was that second temple, again expanded and beautified by Herod the Great, that served as the temple of Christ’s day. Therefore, Christ’s presence at that temple made that temple even more glorious than Solomon’s temple had been.

One other advantage that second temple will always hold over the first one has to do with the amount of time each one stood. There is honest disagreement over precisely how many years each temple stood, but scholars are unanimous in saying that second temple stood longer. Admittedly, this assumes that Herod the Great’s extensively renovated temple continues to get classified as the second temple rather than as a third temple (Herod’s temple), but that is certainly how the Jewish people classify it. Therefore, by adding in the years of Herod’s renovated version of the second temple, we find that Zerubbabel’s temple stood longer than Solomon’s temple.

And what does all this mean for us today? It shows us that God can and will do great things through situations that are no longer the ideal. If a first marriage comes to ruin, God can still bless a second one. If a first career goes bust, God can still use a second one to accomplish His will. If His original plan comes to nothing, He stands ready to enact a new plan. Isn’t that encouraging?

So, you tell me that your temple of Solomon fell down and went boom. Okay, what should you do in the aftermath? You should ask God to help you build a temple of Zerubbabel. If building that new temple requires you to confess your sins and repent of them, then do so. Confess them, repent of them, and receive the forgiveness that only comes from placing saving belief in Jesus. Then, once you’ve got that settled, ask God to begin a new work in your life. Tell Him that you want to make the rest of your life count for Him. Tell Him that you want to learn from your mistakes and do better. Tell Him that you want to get back into the game of serving Him. I think you’ll find that He, in His perfect timing, will take you up on your offer. And why wouldn’t He? After all, He doesn’t want you to spend your time mourning over what once was when you can spend it rejoicing with Him over what is about to be.

Posted in Encouragement, God's Work, Grace, Series: "Ezra" | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Should Heed God’s Preachers

“Ezra” series: (post #11)

Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them. (Ezra 5:1-2, N.K.J.V.)

The Haggai and Zechariah who are mentioned in our text passage are the same two prophets who wrote the Bible’s books that bear their names. Both men were burdened by God to give Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of Judah’s returned exiles a “kick in the pants” to get them to finish building the new temple in Jerusalem (5:1). Sixteen years earlier the project had begun with a lot of excitement, but the work had ground to a halt in the midst of years of delay. Now it was time to complete the job.

Haggai and Zechariah were both part of that group of approximately 50,000 exiles who had left Babylon and returned to Judah. Despite the fact that Zerubbabel carried the title of “governor” and Jeshua (Joshua) carried the title of “High Priest,” neither man was a prophet who literally spoke for God. That’s why Judah was blessed to have Haggai and Zechariah in its ranks.

Haggai prophesied from August to December in 520 B.C., and Zechariah prophesied for two years beginning in October of that year. The prophecies the two men gave are a textbook study in the differing styles of God’s preachers. Whereas Haggai’s four recorded prophecies remind us of fiery sermonettes, Zechariah’s prophecies are more numerous, lengthier, and feature more encouragement than rebuke. But both men spoke for God. God has never required a one-size-fits-all approach to preaching. Just as He can use a crude fisherman like Peter to get His message proclaimed, He can also use a brilliant theologian like Paul to do it.

Haggai, in his blunt style, harshly rebuked Judah’s citizens for spending more time working on their own houses than the temple (Haggai 1:3-4). Obviously, completing the new temple lost its priority with them not long after the work began. As a result, the people became unclean in God’s eyes (Haggai 2:10-14) and God sent a drought to the land to limit their harvests (Haggai 1:7-11; 2:15-19). Neither the misplaced priorities nor the consequences of them are mentioned by Ezra to explain the delay in building the temple. Instead, he focuses upon the interference from outsiders. No doubt both categories of problems were part of the equation. On a more uplifting note, Haggai’s prophecies also promised that God would bless Judah (Haggai 2:19) and looked ahead to the time when He would overthrow its enemies (Haggai 2:20-23).

Zechariah, in his less fiery style, likewise called the citizens of Judah to repent (Zechariah 1:1-6), but he also told them about several visions that he had experienced (1:7-6:15). Chapters 9-14 of his book deal with the rejection of Israel’s coming Messiah, His Second Coming in glory, and His future kingdom. God gave these visions in order to help the people understand that their nation, with its capital city of Jerusalem, was slated for a glorious future.

To the credit of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, they wholeheartedly accepted the words from Haggai and Zechariah and restarted the work of the temple in earnest (5:2). As had been the case before, though, opposition arose almost immediately. This time it came in the form of a group led by Tattenai, who was Persia’s representative governor of the region, and Shethar-Boznai, who was most likely an assistant to Tattenai (5:3).

When Tattenai and Shethar-Boznai heard the reports that the Jews were building a temple, they personally traveled to Jerusalem to ask by what authority the Jews were doing it. After all, the Jews were a conquered people, which meant that major building projects by them had to be cleared through the proper Medo-Persian channels. By God’s favor, the work was allowed to continue while Tattenai sent an official letter of inquiry to King Darius, who was the ruler of Persia at that time (5:4-5). Ezra provides a full copy of the letter as part of his record of the events (5:6-17).

In Tattenai’s letter, he explained to Darius that the leaders of Judah were saying that the building project had been authorized years earlier by a previous Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great (5:6-16). Tattenai ended his letter by asking that the city of Babylon’s official records be searched in order to find out if the story was true. Regardless of what the search uncovered, Tattenai would carry out Darius’ wishes as to whether or not to allow the building to continue (5:17).

Darius complied with Tattenai’s request by decreeing that Persia’s archival records be searched (6:1), but looking in Babylon proved fruitless. There was, however, a vidicating scroll found in the palace of Achmetha (Ecbatana), a city located some 300 miles northeast of Babylon. Achmetha (Ecbatana) was the capital of Media and had been a summer home for Cyrus the Great. Evidently, he had spent the summer there the year he had issued the decree allowing the Jews to return to Judah and build the temple. Once the scroll was found, Darius ordered Tattenai and his colleagues to let the work on the temple continue (6:2-7).

Additionally, Darius issued a decree stating that the people of Judah were to be given whatever materials and livestock they needed to complete the temple and offer the daily sacrifices upon its altar (6:8-10). Darius himself would foot the bill for it all by paying for it out of taxes collected from the region located to the west of the Euphrates river. Darius even ordered that anyone who ignored the decree was to be executed (6:11). That included not only Tattenai and his group but also the meddlesome Samaritans. You talk about God working through a lost Gentile king to bless His people and His work! If Tattenai had sent his letter in an effort to stop the building of the temple, his plan had surely backfired!

This part of the story of the building of the second temple ends with Ezra 6:13-14, and I’ll provide those verses as part of this post. As you read them, pay careful attention to the words I emphasize concerning the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah. The verses say:

Then Tattenai, governor of the region beyond the River, Shethar-Boznai, and their companions diligently did according to what KIng Darius had sent. So the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they built and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the command of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia (N.K.J.V.)

In closing, let me say that men who faithfully and accurately proclaim the messages that God gives them are always needed. While it’s true that today’s pastors and preachers don’t literally speak new words that have just fallen from God’s lips, that doesn’t mean that these men are automatically inferior to the Old Testament prophets. Actually, they have certain advantages over the Old Testament prophets, namely the indwelling Holy Spirit and the canonized written word of God. That’s why you should heed their preaching by applying it to your life. Does God still speak through His preachers today? Certainly He does! The real question is: Are you listening to what He is saying through them or are you tuning Him out by tuning them out?

Posted in God's Word, God's Work, Pastors, Preaching, Series: "Ezra" | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment