July 7, 2011

Friday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 71, Josh. 14:6, Lk. 5:12-26
Evening - Ps. 77, Neh. 2:9, Acts 13:13-25

Commentary

Three words continually occur to me as I read the book of Nehemiah; Grace, Providence, Covenant. To understand how these words fit into the narrative we must return to the early stages of God's call to Abraham. In Genesis 12:1 we read "Get thee out of thy country... unto a land that I will shew thee." And in Genesis 1:7, "Unto thy seed will I give this land." In Exodus the same promise is reiterated, "I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God... And I will bring you unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for an heritage" (Ex. 6:7-8). In Nehemiah, God is continuing His work with the descendents of Abraham. God is keeping His Covenant. It was by grace that He called Abraham and His descendents to be His people. They were no better than any other people. They were sinners and idolaters, just like all the rest of the people in Ur at that time. But in grace He called them, forgave their sin, and blessed them with the privilege of being His people. He watched and guided them by His providence. When they erred from His ways, He providentially raised up a nation to punish them. When it suited His purpose, He raised up another nation to deliver them. He providentially guided them back to Jerusalem. He providentially called Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city. He providentially put it into the king's heart to let Nehemiah go, and even to help him achieve his goal. God is working in the life of His people. We must always see this when we read Nehemiah. Covenant is the call of God to come to Him and be His people. This is the call to love Him above all things. This is the call separate from the rest of the world and to be unique among all people. This is the call to worship and serve Him. It is the call to make the God their God. According to the Covenant, God would redeem them from their sins, and bless them, and love them. He would give to them a home where they could exist as a nation to love and enjoy Him. All through the book of Nehemiah, we see God faithfully keeping His Covenant obligations. And all through the book of Nehemiah we see God calling the Jews back to their Covenant obligations.

The Jews simply are not keeping their end of the bargain. Many have not even returned to Jerusalem from Shushan and Babylon. This is as much as sin as it was for the Exodus generation to refuse to enter the land. It is not just a refusal of God's gift; it is a refusal to keep the Covenant. Those in Jerusalem were no better. They have not really established themselves in the land. They do not possess the land; they simply exist in it. The city is in ruins. Their faith is weak, compromised, or non-existent. They are making no real attempt to be the Covenant people because they have no real faith that God is going to enable them to possess the land and serve Him in it. They suffer from the same lack of faith as the Exodus generation, which did not believe God would give them the land because of the "giants" that were in it.

But God does not forget them. He sends Nehemiah to them. Nehemiah is just as guilty of forsaking the Covenant as any other Jew of the time. He lives in comfort in Shushan rather than in the land God has given to the Jews for their inheritance. He is not worshiping in the Temple, keeping the law of God, or dwelling in Judea as a member of the unique nation of God. But he repents of that, and comes to Jerusalem to join his people and to serve God.

One of the things the Jews must do, in obedience to God, is to really take possession of the land. This is an obligation and a sacred duty. Securing the city by rebuilding its walls is not just about safety, it's about faith, about obedience, about Covenant. The call to rebuild is a call to repent and return to the Covenant. It is a call to become Covenant keepers.

When they begin to rebuild, others oppose them. These people seem to be descendents of the Northern tribes of Israel, who, conquered by the Assyrian Empire generations ago, intermarried with their conquerors and mixed pagan religions with the Old Testament faith. So, while they still worshiped God, they also worshiped other gods, thus holding to an apostate faith. Called "Samaritans" by the Jews, they realise that rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem is a religious action, an act of faith that will re-establish the Covenant, the Temple, and Jerusalem as the center of worship and orthodoxy. This will expose the Samaritan faith to be a comprised faith and a false religion; they cannot tolerate that. They may also fear that a well fortified Jerusalem will become the military and commercial center of the area, thus decreasing their own wealth and power. But it is clear in the book of Nehemiah that the primary ground of their opposition is religious. Thus they spread lies about the Jews to the king, and threaten military action against them if they do not stop their work.

Parallels to these events are so prevalent and obvious to all, comments on them are superfluous. The opposition of false believers who would rather hinder the progress of the Gospel than repent of their compromised faith; the relaxed unbelief of many "Christians" who refuse to dwell in "Jerusalem;" the constant love and guiding providence of God in His true Church; and God's constant call to repent and return to the Covenant, are but a few of the similarities and applications of this passage to our present day.

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