Gleanings from the Bible: Ezra

You would think that Ezra and Nehemiah should really be towards the end of our Old Testament as they cover the return of the Jews from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. The scene is being set for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, albeit about five hundred years before the Nativity.

THE MIRACLE OF THE RETURN

The thing that stands out most is that the Return was a remarkable event. That the Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the Jews to go and rebuild the walls of their city is unusual. That he and his successors would actually help to finance the venture, acknowledging the “God of heaven”, is quite miraculous. It’s no wonder that Ezra records, Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.” (8:27-28). It’s another reminder that God is King over all nations, that he controls their fate and that his mercy continues to extend to his people, despite their past failures. While we think of history being shaped by kings, politicians and wars (and perhaps currently by multi-national corporations), the witness of Scripture is that Yahweh is the mover and shaker who will encompass the good and bad decisions of all people into his overall plans for humanity.

THE DIFFICULTY OF DIVORCE

I found it hard to come to terms with Ezra sending away foreign wives and their children (See chapters 9 and following). It seems harsh against today’s social background and particularly when you try to imagine what it must have been like in their place. Was this a pre-pharisaical sort of response, which the coming of Jesus would change? An exclusiveness which he would challenge, as he often commended the foreigners of faith and finally commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all nations?

I had to remind myself that once again the Jews were at a precarious stage of regrouping and re-establishing all they had lost seventy years earlier. It would still be all too easy to fall back into idolatry, and there were still hundreds of years to go before the Christ would arrive on the scene. A lot can happen in that time – and it did!

Another point is that Ezra is claiming that the Jewish men should not have entered into these marriages in the first place. Today the application of this principle has less to do with race but as much to do with faith. I have had occasion in the past, based on New Testament Scripture, to warn Christian young people to be wary of who they became romantically involved with. Marrying an unbeliever has too often marked the ending of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. At the very least it has made commitment to God’s work more difficult as one person is pulling in a different direction or not pulling at all. I’ve seen it happen too many times and heart-breaking though it may sometimes be I believe that God honours and blesses those who put him first as they seek a partner.

OT RESPONSE vs NT RESPONSE

I note here that to the New Testament Church Paul advises those who converted to Christianity, and were already married to an unbelieving partner, should not seek a separation. There was a chance that the partner could be converted through the witness of the Christian (1 Corinthians 7).

So what had changed between the people of God prior to Christ and those after? Why didn’t Paul insist that Christians divorce unbelievers as Ezra had done with the returning Jews?

There are probably other reasons but the one that stands out for me is that the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit created a generally stronger people spiritually. No longer held together by ritual observance, nor motivated by legal observance, Christians were in a New Covenant relationship, motivated by the Spirit from the heart. Those born of the Spirit had a new, natural bias towards God. The Kingdom of God was always a reality, but with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom had come with power into the lives of all who truly responded with faith.

BACK TO EZRA

On re-reading Ezra I also realised that the business of sending away wives and children was not a hasty decision enacted over a weekend. There were actually one hundred and ten cases and they were dealt with by an investigative committee over seventy-five days with the names recorded. I can only trust that provision was made for all concerned under such difficult circumstances!

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Gleanings from the Bible: 1 & 2 Chronicles

I can’t say that I relished reading 1 and 2 Chronicles at first, especially after completing 1 and 2 Kings. Chronicles covers much the same ground as Kings, but only deals with the Southern Kingdom (Judah) and is an abbreviated, sometimes sanitised, version of events, with the achievements of the good kings highlighted. Add to that copious genealogies and lists of people who occupied various positions in 1 Chronicles and you have an apparent recipe for tedium.

You can see why it was important though. Chronicles are the last books in the Hebrew Bible and were written for the Exiles returning to Judah. The books provided a who’s who of those who belonged and what they did. It helped to link the history of Israel prior to Exile to the returning remnant resettling the Land afterwards. Like many explorations into ancestry today Chronicles answered the question, “Who do you think you are? But also, “Why did the Exile happen to us?” and “Where do I belong now?”

WHY SAUL FAILED

Amongst all this there are still many instructive gems, such as the reasons why Saul failed as a leader (1 Chronicles 10:13). He was unfaithful, did not keep the word of the Lord, consulted a medium for guidance and did not inquire of the LORD. The last point contrasts with the success of David, who constantly inquired of the LORD (Yahweh) (1 Chronicles 14:10, 14. But also see 15:13).

CONSULTATIVE LEADERSHIP AND THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE

In 1 Chronicles 13:1-4 we see an example of David’s leadership. Over the movement of the Ark of the Covenant David conferred with each of his officers, then approached the whole assembly of Israel and said, “If it seems good to you and if it is the will of the LORD our God… let us bring the ark of our God back to us.” Sometimes we try to impose what we think is the will of God on people who are not ready to move. You remember that Samuel was reluctant to bow to the will of the people and grant them a king, but God allowed it even though the people’s will demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s power to deliver them. Ideally, of course, the people’s will and God’s will are in tune but if people are not on board it is usually counterproductive to force the issue. Willing cooperation is most often the way to go (Compare with Acts 15:28).

SACRIFICIAL GIVING

I think that David has the principle of sacrificial giving right when he said…
“…I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)

MINISTRY OF PROPHECY

In 1 Chronicles 25 prophesying is accompanied by harps. It would seem that here at least prophecy had to do with praise and worship of God rather than messages from God. Presumably it is identified as prophecy because it is (intensely) inspired worship. It can probably be compared to 1 Samuel 10:5-7. (On singing see also 2 Chronicles 20:21)

SEARCHING FOR GOD

The Bible often assures us that those who seek God will find him. It is David’s advice to Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:9-10) and is preceded by the exhortation to acknowledge God and follow his commandments. Many people claim that they cannot see evidence of God and I wonder if they give up too easily, or whether they have, in waiting for him to post a sign, not really moved in God’s direction. Patience and perseverance are a hard lesson to learn in a society where instant gratification is the everyday experience, yet I think they are necessary in building a solid relational foundation.

2 Chronicles 7:14 outlines some conditions in seeking answers to prayer… humble yourself, pray and seek God’s face, turn from your wicked ways. And what will God do? He will hear, forgive, and heal the Land. (See also 2 Chronicles 15:15)

Incidentally I love the reference in 2 Chronicles 20:21, where Jehoshaphat, vastly outnumbered by his enemies, says, “We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

THE TEMPLE

The Bible asserts that God is not limited to a building, but the Temple did provide a ritualised place to meet with God via the priesthood. Prayer then was directed towards the Temple, (and during the Exile, in the direction of Jerusalem)(2 Chronicles 6:21). It is the way in which ritual should function to ideally enable people to focus their spiritual life and worship on God. In the New Testament we read that Christians are indwelt by the Spirit of God, that both the gathered Christian community and the individual Christian are temples of God (1 Corinthians 3:16 and 6:19), places where others may meet with God — and therefore a profound responsibility!

It is interesting that at the very end of 2 Chronicles, the end of the Hebrew Bible, has the Gentile King, Cyrus, declaring, “The LORD (Yahweh), the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah…”

God’s purposes are never ultimately thwarted! All people fall within his purposes.