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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Chronological Reading Plan for Sep 25, Neh 1-5

Today's readings are Neh 1-5. Tomorrow's are Neh 6-7.

Nehemiah followed Ezra in returning to Jerusalem. He led a third wave of returning Jewish exiles who were sent by Artaxerxes in 445 B.C. This era of Jewish history is commonly known as the post-exilic period. It begins when Cyrus sends the first wave of people back  in 538 B.C. While Ezra focuses on the rebuilding/re-establishing of the religious practices of the Jews, Nehemiah details the governmental/political/physical restoration.

In Neh 1-2 Nehemiah hears of the sad state of Jerusalem and prays for God to help him restore the city. King Artaxerxes sees Nehemiah's despondent face and grants him extraordinary privileges, protection and provision to return and begin work. Sanballat, governor of Samaria, and Tobiah, another Samaritan are not happy.

In Neh 3-4 work begins. Nearly everyone joins in.  But Sanballat and a few other neighbors (the Ammonites and the Ashdod (The Phillistines) make things very difficult fo the rebuilding efforts. The people labored "with all their heart" and prayed to God, resisting the external pressure on the work of God.

Interestingly, in Neh 4:10, we hear that internal rumors and grumbling begin to slow down the work. Some of the concerns expressed are that the enemies are threatening to attack and the work load seems too large. The unsettled factions petition Nehemiah to abandon the work or rebuilding in order to defend those who are in fear of war. Nehemiah encourages them to pray reminding them that God defends and protects His own. Work resumes but Nehemiah and his men stand guard and everyone remains armed and vigilant while they work.

Neh 5 reveals the extent and scope of the internal pressure. Some of the poorer folks have mortgaged their homes and land. The rebuilding effort is expensive, taxes to the Persians are exceptionally high and food is short. Some Jewish lenders are taking advantage of those who are needy. Some of the poor are being sold into slavery. Nehemiah chastises the lenders, rebuking them for making ill-advised profit while the whole community is struggling to buy back enslaved Jews from their Gentile oppressors. In Neh 5:14-19, Nehemiah becomes governor but refuses to live the posh lifestyle of a Persian governmental official while those around him struggle. He sets the example for others to follow, refusing to sacrifice service to the people for his own comfort.

God is moving in a mighty way. As is so often the case, the biggest obstacle to overcome is not from outside, it is from inside. Notice that work slowed when the threats from outside made the people fearful. These particular threats had been there all along. The Samaritans and the Philistines were old and familair enemies of the Jews. The taxes were in place prior to the Jews leaving Babylon. Work didn't slow down until the returning Jews focused on their enemies and obstacles rather than their calling. They had to be reminded that God promised to protect and preserve them.

Work on the walls continues. But the people begin to suffer hardship. Their personal needs begin to take priority over the work of the Lord.  They want to abandon the work on the walls to better protect themselves. Ironically, without the walls, the people will be left to their own resources to defend themselves. Their fears can cause them to become victims to the very things they fear. However, Nehemiah successfully redirects their attention to God who is  the solution to all their fears. The walls are finished.

It's natural to be concerned over the events in our lives. Things happen that can distract us from the work of the Lord. One of the most difficult things we can do is to keep our focus on the One who protects us, finish His work and find sanctuary and safety in Him.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Chronological Reading Plan for Sep 24, Ezra 7-10

Today's readings are Ezra 7-10. Tomorrow's are Neh 1-5.

King Artaxerxes, who may have been the son of Esther's husband Ahaseurus (Xerxes), recognizes Ezra's qualifications and passion as a spiritual leader for the Jews and sends him back to Jerusalem with abundant blessings and authority to establish godly spirituality and a judicial/civil system according the the law of God (Ezra 7:25).

The king had been used by God (Ezra 7:27) to recreate a Divine theocracy in Judah. The king not only has decreed it, but he has funded it as well.

Ezra 8 establishes Ezra and his party as having the genealogical heritage to work in the Temple. The priesthood will continue in proper order. 

Ezra 9 tells us that the people have, once again, intermarried. Apparently, while they were in exile, many of the Jewish people acquired pagan spouses. Concerned that they are falling into familair sin, as their  fathers did, Ezra prays and confesses on behalf of the people. In this case, Ezra becomes the mediator/advocate of the people. But, Ezra is a prophet as well. He speaks the truth to the people, calling them to repent. 

Ezra 10 shows the people falling under conviction and deciding to "put away" their marriages to non-Jews. All the text reveals is that the spouses and families were excommunicated. The word for "put away" is not the same word for divorce, indicating extraordinary measures are being taken to correct a sin that should never have happened in the first place.

What we see in Ezra is the serious nature of maintaining purity and holiness. God clearly sent Ezra to Jerusalem to oversee the spiritual welfare of the Jews as they rebuilt the city and the Temple. When he arrived, it became clear that they were falling into the same wicked lifestyles that happened prior to the exile. God had specifically told them not to intermarry so as to avoid bringing pagan worship and idolatry into their homes and communities. They were doing it again!

We should be careful not to take the actions of Ezra as prescriptive to the current times. The Bible treats divorce as a gravely serious matter. Nothing was mentioned in the passages about responsibility, property and whether support was offered. We don't have all the details of what happened but we can assume tough decisions were made. Many lives were upended and hearts were broken.

The lesson Ezra teaches is not to marry outside the faith. It can have grave consequences. The deeper lesson here is that the union of dark (godless) and light (godly) should never be attempted. Those who are one with Christ should not unite with those who reject Him. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Chronological Reading Plan for Sep 23, Est 6-10

Today's readings are Est 6-10. Tomorrow's are Ezra 7-10.

The rest of Esther's story is a case study on how God intervenes in the lives of His own, protecting them, even when they're unaware.

The king hears about Mordecai and how he secretly warned the previous king about a planned attack. The king approaches Haman for an idea about how to honor Mordecai. Haman, thinking the king intends to honor him, comes up with an elaborate and lush way for the king to recognize Mordecai.

When it all happens, Haman realizes he's made a huge mistake. Esther reveals Haman’s plan to the king and, ironically, Haman ends up being hanged on the gallows he had intended for Mordecai. Herein is another lesson. Haman self-righteously judged Mordecai to be a rebellious man and plotted his execution. In the end, Haman is the rebellious man, manipulating the king for his own purposes, and is executed in the same manner he had planned for Mordecai.

Significantly, in Esther’s case, in the Book of Esther, a woman acts as a mediator for God’s chosen people. She is willing to sacrifice everything for their welfare and preservation. She functions under the wisdom and direction of Mordecai but it is Esther who goes to the king as an advocate of the people.

The end results are that Esther is honored, Mordecai is elevated to second in the kingdom, the Jews are saved and their enemies are destroyed.

God has blessed the Jews returning to Jerusalem but He has blessed those who stayed behind as well. Why? To show the Persians His might and power. Those who stayed behind were witnesses to the presence of God among all people. 
The Book of Esther has all the elements of the gospel. There is a people who are sentenced to death (the Jews), an accuser (Haman) an advocate (Esther), one who works behind the scenes to elevate the advocate (Mordecai), a king (Ahaseurus) who has a heart for truth and justice, a story of glorious redemption and the elimination of all of the enemies of God’s people.

We would do well to keep in mind that the roles portrayed here are only faint shadows of God the Father (the king), the Son (Esther) and the Spirit (Mordecai). These people are far from perfect and frequently operate according to the flesh. But the underlying lessons remain. God provides for and protects His people through a divinely appointed mediator and advocate.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Chronological Reading Plan for Sep 22, Est 1-5

Today's readings are Esther 1-5. Tomorrow's are Esther 6-10.

While Ezra, Nehemiah and Zechariah tell the story of how the Jews return to Jerusalem, Esther describes what happens to those who stayed behind. It depicts the reign of Xerxes (Greek for the Hebrew name Ahasuerus) over the Persian empire from 485 BC to 464 BC.

While not mentioning God anywhere in the book, Esther clearly shows God's sovereign protection and preservation over His people while it depicts the Gentile king as unaware of the events transpiring in his own kingdom and being manipulated by those around him. 

There are also a number of object lessons taught in Esther. While it's never a good idea to assume that kings always represent God or Jesus, particularly in Ahaseurus's case, we can still learn much from how King Ahaseurus interacts with his subjects.

Est 1 relates Queen Vashti's demotion for not responding to the call of the king. Notice, Vashti is banished from ever being in the presence of the king again because of her disobedience.

Est 2 introduces Esther (her Persian name), a beautiful Jewish girl and Mordecai, her cousin who is raising her. The king is looking for an addition to his harem. Esther is chosen and wins the heart of the king who makes her his queen. 

In a traditional setting, Mordecai would have been appalled at what happened to Esther, as would she. But, Mordecai has been living in Babylon for most of his life. The author of Esther judges neither Mordecai's nor Esther's actions or motives. He simply tells the story. However, in Esther, we see a woman who is willing to sacrifice. This will become an important element of Esther's story and another object-lesson for us. 

Meanwhile Mordecai uncovers a plot to harm the king, tells Queen Esther who warns the king and averts disaster.

In Est 3, we meet Haman, who despises Mordecai. Haman may well have been a descendant of Agag (Ex 17:8-16), one of the kings of the Amalekites, bitter enemies of the Jews. Mordecai offends Haman by refusing to bow down to him. Haman talks the king into ordering the genocide of the Jews in order to get back at Mordecai.

Mordecai convinces Esther to go into the king and get him to reverse Haman's decision. Esther agrees even though she is risking her life. The law of the land decrees that it is unlawful to enter into the king's presence unless he summons you. These are two other object lessons: you do not go to the king unless you are called and not everyone is called. Meanwhile the Jews fast and pray giving us yet another lesson: the appropriate response to persecution and oppression is fervent prayer and fasting with total dependence on God. 

Haman plots to hang Mordecai in Est 5 while Esther, apparently with a plan in mind, plans a feast for the king. The day before the feast, Haman spends his time gloating over his position and his riches. He has a gallows built for Mordecai. 

Once again, we see God's sovereign hand in the affairs of a pagan nation, protecting the king, elevating one of His children to the throne as queen and laying the groundwork for the protection of His people.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chronological Reading Plan for Sep 21, Zech 10-14

The readings for today are Zech 10-14. Tomorrow's are Est 1-5.

In Zech 10, the Lord (the good shepherd) promises to return more of His people to the Promised Land. The under-shepherds, men who have been given the responsibility to lead,  will  be accountable for how they led the people. God also promises to strengthen His people and lead them in victory over their enemies. This is another pattern we’ve seen and will continue to see. God gives certain people leadership responsibilities for guiding and caring for His children. Their job is not to stand in God’s place, but to nourish, protect, heal and grow the people of God. They are, in every way, servants of the people held responsible to God for how they serve His children. They pave the way for the ultimate servant, Jesus Christ.

The last two chapters show that the pattern of refining and redemption will play itself out in the last days as God establishes His eternal kingdom in much the same manner as He does in Jerusalem during Zechariah's time.

The entire book of Zechariah tells the tale of a small beginning as the Jews first return to a decimated Jerusalem. That small beginning started with someone moving a single stone to begin rebuilding the walls and temple. Eventually, we see a new and healthy city with a beautiful temple. 

This is a reminder of the eternal kingdom of God which began with a similarly small beginning, one humble man, Abraham, whose descendants eventually became the church. The small beginning we see in Abraham not only grew but will continue on forever in glory.

We learn a number of lessons from Zechariah; (1) We should never measure success by the size of the work. The things we do, no matter how big or small, can have eternal impact. (2) God sits in sovereign authority over everyone, not just His people. (3) Leadership is serious business, leaders will be held accountable for how they lead.