July 31, 2011

Monday after the Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 39, 1 Sam. 1:12-20, Lk. 11:37
Evening - Ps. 42, 43, Dan. 2:14-24, Acts 20:17

Commentary

None of the wise men of Babylon were able to tell the king's dream; therefore, he issued an order that they should all be executed. While this may be cruel, Nebuchadnezzar has realised that they are all pretenders. In his anger he plans to rid his kingdom of their lies. Daniel, however, asks the king to wait a while before putting his plan into action (2:15&16), promising that he would tell both the dream and its interpretation.

Verses 17 and 18 show Daniel and his companions seeking God in prayer. They are asking God to give Daniel understanding that he may not be killed with the rest of the wise men. God does not always answer our prayers "yes." But He did this time. In fact, we can see that it is the providence of God that has orchestrated this whole event. It is God who gave the dream to Nebuchadnezzar, and God who kept it from the false prophets and wise men of Babylon. In this He showed the falsehood of their religions and powers. And it was God who gave the interpretation to Daniel. In this He shows that He is the One God, who sets the order of times and seasons, raises up and casts down kings and empires, and has revealed the dark and secret things of the king's heart to Daniel. It is worthy of note that Daniel had pity on the wise men of Babylon. He desired not their death, but that they might see the hand of God, and worship Him.

July 29, 2011

Saturday after the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 28, 1 Sam. 1:1-11, Lk. 11:29-36
Evening - Ps. 47, 48, Dan. 2:1-6, 10-13, Acts 20:1-16

Commentary
We began reading in Daniel last night, and will be in it until mid August. It is a story of people holding fast to the faith when all the props have been removed and the general direction of the surrounding culture is hostile to you. The story takes place in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Jerusalem and deported the Jews to captivity in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar had some of the Jewish boys selected to be instructed in the learning of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). These were to be descendants of the king and nobility of Judah, without defect, and showing promise of intellectual ability. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to make Babylonians of them, and use them to influence the Jews to accept Babylonian rule. Children from other nations readily agreed to live in the palace and learn of Babylon, but the Jewish children did not. They retained their Jewish identity, including eating only "Kosher" food. And "God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams" (1:17).

It would be very difficult for anyone to resist the gentle brainwashing of the Babylonians. Separated from their parents, told they are the best and brightest children in all the land, promised privilege and prosperity, it would have been nearly impossible for an adult to remain true to God. Yet these young men did. In the days ahead we will read their stories and see the hand of Providence guiding God's people, even in this dark and dangerous hour.

Tonight's reading takes us to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. He knew his dream was important, and needed someone to tell him what it meant. But the seers and astrologers often lied to kings to protect themselves. They told kings what they wanted to hear instead of the truth, and Nebuchadnezzar wanted the truth. So he decreed that the wise men, the astrologers and seers, would be required to tell him the content of his dream and its meaning. Those who could not, were considered useless pretenders and would be executed by being cut to pieces and their property taken and turned into dumps (2:5 &12).

July 28, 2011

Friday after the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 26, Ruth 4:9-22, Lk. 11:14-28
Evening - Ps. 32, 36:5, Acts 19:21

Commentary

This morning brings us to the close of the book of Ruth. It is very tempting to spend time on the details of the events in today's reading, but we will instead go right to the major points of the passage.

First, the conversion of Ruth is complete. In the beginning of the book she was a pagan citizen of one of the bitterest enemies of Israel, Moab. In today's reading she is the mother of a child who inherits the property of Elimelech and Naomi, and of their sons. In the beginning she was an alien to the people of God, and to the promises of God given to Israel. Now she is a full citizen and participant in them. She is fully a daughter of the Covenant. So here is a woman, who grew up outside of the Church and without instruction in the Scriptures, who is welcomed into the Church by the grace of God. Thus, it is faith, not background that makes one a child of God. A person who has never yet been in Church is as welcome as those who have been raised in it. They, like Ruth, may freely come to God.

Second, the conversion of Naomi is complete. Naomi is back in the Covenant people, with a grandchild who will carry on the family name in Israel. More than this, she is reconciled to God. At the beginning of the book she was in sin and unbelief. Now her faith is as real as her place among the Covenant people. She, too, is a true daughter of the Covenant and child of God. Naomi was raised in Israel, with all the blessings and opportunities to know God and learn the Scriptures that the Hebrew people enjoyed. Yet she gave only lip service to God, preferring to follow the ways of the world. Many today, having the same opportunities, throw them away as Naomi did. Raised in the Church with countless opportunities to learn the Scripture and know Christ, they fritter away their opportunities in youth, and, in adulthood, form the habit of neglecting the Word and House of God. They may retain a nominal belief in God. They may even try to live moral lives and have great respect for the Bible. But their hearts are not in it. When Christ commands them, "Follow Me," they draw back and ask, "How far?" Naomi was such a person, but in today's reading she has turned to God in true faith. All who have followed Naomi's example away from God may also follow her example back to Him. Those who do will find God as willing to welcome them as He was to welcome Naomi. Draw nigh unto Him and He will draw nigh unto you.

Third, God chose Ruth to be a direct ancestor of Israel's greatest king, David. She was David's Great Grandmother. One of the main points of the book of Ruth is to show the life of the immediate forbearers of David, and to serve as an introduction to the call and life of David as king of Israel.

Fourth, the guiding hand of God is always upon His people. The time in which Naomi and Ruth lived was a chaotic time of rampant sin and open rejection of God. Some Israelites, like Elimelech and Naomi, left Israel to dwell among the pagans. Others simply incorporated pagan ideas and values into the Old Testament faith. Both actions were wrong, and their practitioners paid dearly. But God did not desert Israel, nor did He allow their sins to stop His plan to bring all things together in Christ. He brought David into the world by His providence and grace, and through David's line, the Saviour was born, in "the fulness of the time."

July 27, 2011

Thursday after the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 25, Ruth 4:1-8, Lk. 10:28-11:13
Evening - Ps. 30, 31:1-6, Acts 19:8-20

Commentary

Boaz went to the gate of Bethlehem and found the man who was a closer kinsman than himself. This man was willing to redeem the property of Naomi until he learned he would also have to marry Ruth. Marrying her would mean the property would not belong to him, but to Ruth's children. He would, therefore, be buying the property for Naomi, Ruth, and Ruth's children. This was the intent of this custom. It served to keep widows and children out of poverty, not provide extra land to those who could afford it. This man was willing to redeem the land when it appeared it would profit him. When he saw it would not, he passed it on the Boaz. Thus, Boaz receives the right to marry Ruth and provide for the prosperity of Naomi and Ruth.

This is very important for it secures the place of Naomi and Ruth in the Covenant people of God. They have a share in the heritage of Israel, which symbolises that they have a "share" in God. They are truly now part of Israel, the redeemed of God.

July 26, 2011

Wednesday after the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 20, 21:1-6, Ruth 3:1-13, Lk. 10:25-37
Evening - Ps. 27, Acts 18:24-19:7

Commentary

The events of the third chapter of Ruth seem strange to modern Christians. To put them in chronological order we see that the harvest is over and the time to thresh the grain has come. Boaz has dealt kindly with Naomi and Ruth, and it is due to him that the women have been able to gather enough food to keep them well supplied until the next year's harvest. Boaz, who lives in Bethlehem, has come to one of his threshing houses to winnow the barely, meaning to separate the grain from the hull and bits of leaves and stalks, called, "chaff." That part seems plain and normal to us, but what is this sneaking around in the dark and uncovering Boaz's feet? It is simply this; Ruth is asking Boaz to marry her and to redeem the property of her husband, now under lease to someone else, due to Naomi's poverty (4:3).

According to Old Testament law, the brother of a man who died without children was to marry his brother's widow, and father a child who would inherit the land and property of the deceased man. This was done so that the name of the deceased would continue in Israel, and that his family would always possess his portion of the land. According to Old Testament law, the land of Israel was given as a heritage to the people. Therefore, it could not be sold, but could be leased out until the year of Jubilee, when it reverted back to the original owner or his heirs. An Israelite usually only leased his property out because of severe financial problems, so there was a provision that a near kinsman could buy back the lease and return the property to its rightful owners. This was called "redeeming" the land.

When Ruth went to Boaz at night, she did nothing immoral. She simply asked Boaz to marry her. That is the meaning of verse 9. Had Boaz spread his "skirt," or, blanket over her, he would have been asking her to lie beside him as his wife, and they would be considered married. Boaz specifically did not invite her, but rather turned her away telling her that a nearer kinsman had the duty to marry her, but he would certainly do so if the other man consented.

It is significant that the Hebrew word for kinsman can also mean "redeemer." To marry his brother's widow a man would also redeem his property for his heirs if it had been leased to another. Thus, Boaz is addressed by Ruth as her near kinsman and redeemer. We see here a picture of the love of Christ for His Church. He is her redeemer who purchases her place in the Kingdom of God. He is also her husband who loves her for eternity.

July 25, 2011

Tuesday after the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 17, Ruth 2:14, Lk. 11:14-28
Evening - Ps. 27, Acts 18:24-19:7

The heart of today's reading in Ruth is found in verse 20. Naomi is suffering through the dark night of the soul. She seems to have had an exceptionally close and happy relationship with her family. Now her beloved husband is dead, along with her two dear sons. The people who made her life worth living have been ripped from hear heart, and her grief at this loss must have been almost unbearable. Added to this grief is the loss of her home and income, so that she is plunged into poverty so deep she becomes a beggar who has to rely on charity for even her food. She knows that, if her neighbors are not charitable, or if food is scarce, she and her daughter in law will face death by slow starvation in the coming winter.

It is difficult for us to imagine the deep, deep sorrow, anger, and despair that grips Naomi's heart, though we can see how it would be compounded by her nominal faith. But a spark of Godly hope is ignited within her when she sees the food brought to her by Ruth. Ruth has brought not only grain, but also a significant portion of the meal given to her earlier that day (2:14 & 18)-19). She bears the good tidings that Boaz has provided an abundant supply of food for them (2:15-16, 21-23). But verse 20 is the real turning point in Naomi's life. Learning that Ruth has gleaned in the fields of Boaz, Naomi realises that it is the Providence and Grace of God that took Ruth to the fields this day. Her words, "Blessed be he of the Lord, who hath not left off His kindness to the living and to the dead," show that Naomi realises God intends to heal her wounded soul and restore her heritage in Israel. Boaz is required by Covenant Law to marry Ruth and provide children to inherit the property of her husband's father. He also has the wealth and power to redeem the property and return it to Ruth, and to Naomi. Naomi's words express her conversion. In these words, she confesses her faith in God, and takes her rightful place as a daughter of the Covenant.


In a very real sense, Boaz is a picture our Redeemer-Kinsman, our Lord Christ. He has power and the will to provide for the needs of life and to redeem us from the poverty of our sin. As God, though the kindness and faithfulness of Boaz, healed Naomi of the wounds in her soul and made her a child of the Covenant, Christ heals our souls and makes us children of grace. As Boaz had the power to redeem the property of Elimelech and make Naomi, Ruth, and her children heirs of land in Israel, Christ has power to redeem our souls and make us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. Naomi realises God is working out the redemption of her property and her soul. Thus she gives thanks to God for His kindness to her, the living, and to her husband and sons, the dead. Their heritage in Israel will continue.

July 24, 2011

Monday after the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 11, 12, Ruth 2:1-13, Lk. 9:46
Evening - Ps. 8, 19, Acts 1:1-11

Commentary

Naomi may have returned to Israel empty, but God had much good in store for her. By his providence He works all things to good for His people, and He will bring good to Naomi in spite of her sin and lukewarm faith. By His providence He brings Naomi into contact with her wealthy brother in law, Boaz. It was not Naomi who made plans to glean the fields of Boaz, it was Ruth (2:2). Ruth even dared to hope Boaz would be favourably disposed toward her. By God's grace, he was. It was not chance that brought him from Bethlehem. It was not chance that caused him to see this unknown woman gleaning in his field. It was not chance that he felt kindly toward her and gave her far more than simply the leftovers of the crop. It was Providence. God caused Boaz to learn of Ruth's faithfulness to Naomi, and of her leaving the land of Moab to join herself to Israel (2:11). He desired God to bless her, and intended to be an instrument of His good will toward her (2:12-13).

There is much to learn of God's grace in this passage. We, like Naomi have sinned and strayed from God like lost sheep. We have dwelt among the heathen and neglected our duties to God. Our rebellion has been costly, for we have reaped what we have sown and we have found ourselves empty in our souls. But God is rich in mercy. In His Providence He has brought us to our Kinsman Redeemer and into His house and home. He has given us all that He has, as an adoring husband to his loving wife. We came to God empty, but He has made us full.

July 22, 2011

Saturday after the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 147, Ruth 1:15, Lk. 9:2-45
Evening - Ps. 148, 150, Acts 17:16

Commentary

Naomi's homecoming is not a happy one. She says to those who greet her that she "went out full." She means she left Israel with a husband and children, and, most likely enough money to buy property and start life over again in Moab. In Moab she found two loving daughters in law. She had family, love, and hope. Now that is all gone. She has returned hungry, widowed, grieving the loss of her sons, and so poor she has to beg and glean the fields for food. She laments, "I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty" (1:21) Thus she tells the people not to call her Naomi, meaning, "happy" or "pleasant", but Mara, meaning "bitter" or "angry" (1:20). Why is she angry? Because the Lord has dealt very bitterly with her (1:20). Or has He? It was Elimelch and Naomi who left the Covenant people to dwell among the heathen. It was they who left the benefits of the sacrifices, the Covenant, and the worship of God. It was they who married their sons to Moabite women. It was they who turned away from God, not God who turned away from them. God simply allowed them to have what they wanted. He often does the same with us today. "Christians" want to live like pagans, so God gives us what we want. Only, like Elimelech and Naomi, we find Moab isn't so great after all. We go out full, but come back empty. What else should we expect? How can we expect to be at peace with God when our hearts are set on the world?
What Naomi does not see is that the hand of God is heavy upon her for grace. It is heavy upon her because it is calling her back God. It is calling her back to the Covenant. God is saying to her, "I will be your God and you will be my beloved daughter. I will bless you and protect you, and I will give you better things than you can even imagine (see Eph. 3:20). Come back to Me. Let Me love you. Let Me bless you." It is as though God is saying to her;

"Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded, be afflicted and mourn and weep, let your laughter [your desire for selfish pleasures] be turned to mourning [repentance] and your joy [pleasure in sin] to heaviness [grief in the soul over sin]. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up."
James 4:8-10

Both Ruth and James call for the same kind of faith, a faith that turns from sin to God; a faith that removes us from the throne of our lives and enthrones God as King and God. This kind of faith is not a single event; it is a pattern of life. It is a habit of the mind and soul. It is a call to continuously draw nigh to God, cleanse your hands, purify your heart, and live in the spirit of James 4:8-10. Make it your habitual way of life. This is the call of God to Naomi, and to us.

Ruth 1:16-17 is one of the most beautiful and moving passages in all of Scripture, and it ought to be treasured by every child of God. In it we see the conversion of Ruth. She has been an idolater. She has been an alien and a stranger to God. Her life and values were shaped by the culture of paganism, and they were the habit of her life. But here she lays that life down and takes up a new life as a child of God. She joins the Covenant people, she moves to the Promised Land. She enthrones God as her God, and she intends to make this the habit of her life.

Thus our reading for today has brought us face to face with the major themes of the Book of Ruth. We have seen the Providence of God in His care for His people and working out His plan and purpose for this world. We have seen the Grace of God calling Naomi back to His people and Himself. We have seen Repentance, for God's call to Naomi is to return to Him and turn away from her sin. And we have seen Conversion, as Ruth has come to God and become a child of grace. All of these themes will be developed further in the coming chapters of Ruth.

July 21, 2011

Friday after the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 142, 143, Ruth 1:1-14, Lk. 9:18-27
Evening - Ps. 145, Acts 17:1-15

Commentary

The book of Ruth is beloved for its literary beauty, but few understand its theology. It begins in the turbulent time of the judges; the time of people like Deborah and Samson, during which the Hebrews, deep in sin and unbelief, were being attacked by the Canaanite tribes, and starved by famine. It was a famine in Israel that caused Elimelech and Naomi to leave Israel and travel to Moab.

Remember that Israel was called by God to be His people and to love and serve Him in the land He gave unto them. It was sin for Israelites to desert their homes and people to live among the Gentiles, and it was sin for them to marry their sons to Gentile women. It is the sin of unbelief, of not trusting God to keep His promises, of not trusting Him enough to keep the Covenant and leave the rest to Him. As in so many things, the names and places have changed, but the story remains the same.

We see here a gradual and intentional move away from the Covenant of God toward the pagan views and lifestyle of the Gentiles. Elimelech and Naomi may not have rejected God entirely, but they were comfortable being part of an idolatrous people and having idolatry in their home and family. In spite of their move, Elimelech and his sons died in the famine, leaving the three women to cope alone.

When Naomi hears there is food in Israel she determines to go home. This is not a return to God, against whom she is very angry (13). It is simply a move to find food. Knowing her Moabite sojourn would be a hindrance to some of the Israelites, Naomi conveniently becomes a Hebrew again and tells her daughters in law to leave her. This is difficult, for there is obviously great love between them. It is partly due to her love that Naomi tells the wives to return to their own people. They are young and will be able to find husbands in Moab, but taking financial obligations to support a wife and her mother in law might not be the first choice of a young Moabite man.

So the story of Ruth begins with sin and its complications in the lives of these people. It also begins with Naomi's decision to return to Israel, but we need to understand this is not a desire to return to God and His Covenant, merely a decision to go where she could find food.

July 20, 2011

Thursday after the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 136, Judges 16:23, Lk. 9:1-17
Evening - Ps. 144, Acts 16:25

In Old Testament times a person could set aside the normal occupations of life to dedicate himself to God. This was done for a specific period of time on a voluntary basis (Num.6:1-21). Presumably people took Nazarite vows in order to devote themselves to a time of prayer, fasting, and study, with possibly a time of service to the poor or helping in the Temple. Samson was somewhat different, for he was born to be a Nazarite, and his time of separation was life from conception to the grave. His calling was to be dedicated to God and lead Israel to repent of sin and win back her freedom from her Philistine oppressors. But Samson was an utter failure. Rebellious from the start, many infractions of his vows and the Law of God are recorded. Others probably did not make it into the Bible. Instead of Godliness, we see in Samson a worldly, self-indulgent life-style. Samson's real god was Samson, and his real purpose in life was to indulge his own desires and comforts. Self-control was unknown to him. The idea that he should give up his own comforts and amusements to please God seems to have be completely foreign to his mind. Thus, instead of a man who forgoes the pleasures of the flesh to find the pleasures of God, Samson was a man who disdained the things of God to bask in the pleasures of the flesh.

In last night's reading we saw Samson take the final step away from God. In tonight's reading we see the terrible result. Finding that his strength was truly gone, the Philistines bound Samson and took him captive. It was a festive day for the Philistines when they brought their once powerful enemy into Gaza. One of the things they did to mock and cause pain to him, was to burn out his eyes. They made a slave of him, forcing him to grind grain for other prisoners of the Philistines. At a festival gathering they brought him before the crowd to taunt him, maybe even to kill him. By the grace of God he was able to collapse the building in which they were gathered, causing the death of many Philistines as well as himself, but his action brought no real victory to the Hebrew people, nor did it deliver Israel from Philistine domination.

The Nazarite vow shows that the practice of setting time aside to seek and grow in God is good and helpful. We are so pressed with busyness these days we hardly take Sunday mornings for worship and reflection. We should. Sundays should be a time to turn aside from the world and be still before the Lord. They should be a day for worship and meditation upon God and the things of God. They should be times of quiet stillness rather than incessant sound and motion. Other days, while not replacing the Lord's Day, may also be spent in meditative stillness with God. When did you last devote a day to reading Scripture and pondering its meaning and application? When did you last put aside your own pursuits and pleasures to spend Sunday morning with God's people in Church? When is the last time you denied yourself some worldly trinket and devoted that money to God's house instead? I truly fear that many in the Church stand as near the door as possible looking for an opportune time to do as Samson; leave it all behind and throw themselves into the world and its pleasures. The Collect for the week reminds us to hold to God instead of the world.

"O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

July 19, 2011

Wendesday after the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 125, 138, Judges 16:15-22, Lk. 8:40
Evening - Ps.132, 134, Acts 16:16-24

Commentary

Samson seems to have trouble identifying the enemy. He married an enemy; a Philistine woman (14:15) at a time when the Philistines had dominion over Israel (14:4). And the Philistines threatened to burn her and her family if she did not help them against Samson.

Delilah was no better. Some think she may also have been a Philistine, though that is not known for sure. It is known that she cooperated with them against Samson, and, each time Samson told her something takes his strength away, she tries it on him. Did he think she would not try cutting his hair? How could he not know she was an enemy, not a friend?

Samson had another problem, he did not realise the true source of his strength. It came from God, not hair. His hair was but a symbol that he belonged to God. He may not have been very faithful, but he belonged to God and wore the symbol of his calling. To allow someone to cut his hair was to allow someone to remove the symbol of his calling, which is the same as rejecting that calling. So, in this passage, Samson takes the final step in a long journey away from God, and when that happens, he looses his strength.

Let us learn from Samson. Let us learn from his habit of disobedience and his attraction to the ways of sin. Samson identified with the enemies of God and His people, and he moved toward them and away from God. Finally, he took the decisive step. But, as those who follow worldliness learn too late, he found not friendship among the Philistines, but cruel slavery.

July 18, 2011

Tuesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.123, 124, Judges 16:4-14, Lk. 8:26-39
Evening - Ps. 126, 127, 130, Acts 16:6-15

Commentary

Samson lives a life of total wantonness. He does not have the habit of Godliness. He does not seek God, confess sin, or try to fulfill his calling. He breaks his Nazarite vows and rejects the Covenant of God without remorse and without repentance. There is no great revival of covenant keeping under his leadership, only continued moral decay. Consequently, there is no deliverance from the Philistines. Samson himself attacks them and prevents them from completely overtaking the Hebrews, but even Samson is no great threat to them without an army, and he will not give himself to his calling long enough to rally the Hebrews. Instead of rallying around him, the Israelites attempt to hand him over to the Philistines in hope that his death will cause the Philistines to go easier on Israel (15:12). But Samson escapes from the Philistines and, single handedly, inflicts a terrible slaughter on them (15:15).

Thus we come to tonight's reading of Samson and Delilah. The Philistines desperately want to destroy Samson. He not only killed many of their people (see also 15:8) and destroyed many of their crops (15:4-6), he has destabilised the area. As long as Samson is alive there is a possibility of a Hebrew revolt and victory. So they laid plans to destroy his strength and capture him. Samson walks into their trap willingly.

July 17, 2011

Monday after the fourth Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.119:49-64, Judges 13:2-14, 24, Lk. 8:16-25
Evening - Ps. 119:65-80, Acts. 15:36-16:5

Commentary

The morning readings over the past two weeks have brought us to the beginning of the life and work of one of the Bible's most famous people, Samson. Samson was a judge of Israel. These were not courtroom judges trying cases. They were military leaders who organised the tribes of Israel into forces that were able to fend off the attacks of the Canaanites. You may remember that Israel was told to drive the Canaanites out of the land when they returned from the Egyptian bondage. They failed to accomplish this. They did defeat the Canaanites enough to minimise them as a military threat, but rather than completely driving them out of Israel, the Hebrews settled down among them and began the process of building homes and farms and shops and enjoying the Promised Land. At first this appears harmless enough, but the Hebrews began to build relationships with the Canaanites. This involved a certain amount of cultural give-and-take, meaning the Hebrews began to adopt Canaanite ways of talking, dressing, thinking, and living. Worst of all, they began to adopt Canaanite religion. At first these compromises were small, almost imperceptible. But over time they grew, and, after a few generations, there was practically no difference between the people of God and the pagan Canaanites. There is much for the Church to learn from this, for compromise usually leads to more compromise. The Church, or Christian, who begins to adapt to the pop culture around them, may find that they have become that culture. God has ordained that an obvious difference exists between His people and the people of the world. It must be so because the world's values are reflected in its culture, just as our values are reflected in ours. And the two cultures are at war, for one is based on Godliness while the other is based on ungodliness. One is Light the other is darkness, and they cannot occupy the same space in peace. Nor can the Church build a City of Light using the tools of darkness.

The Hebrews in Judges 13 have been compromising with the Canaanites for generations. But compromise has not resulted in peace between the Hebrews and the Canaanites. Just the opposite; the Canaanites have fought against Israel, and, in many cases, have subdued the people of God under cruel domination. Suffering under Gentile rule, the Hebrews sometimes repented of their sin, and God, who is rich in mercy, raised up a deliverer to lead Israel in battle and freedom. The Hebrews followed God faithfully for a while after their deliverance, but soon began again the sequence of compromise, leading to subjection and domination by the Canaanites.

During one of the periods of sin and domination, the Angel of the Lord appeared to a Hebrew woman and revealed that she would give birth to a son who would be a Nazarite from the moment of conception. A Nazarite was supposed to be entirely dedicated to God, thus, while carrying the child, even the woman was to keep the strict customs of the Nazarites. The meaning is obvious; deliverance will come through religious revival led by a man completely devoted to God. Unfortunately, the people do not live up to the high demands of God. Instead, the leader is flawed and sinful, and the revival is half-hearted at best. Yet we see something important here. We see that true deliverance requires a leader that is stronger, greater, and more righteous than any mere human can possibly be. All of the judge/redeemers of Israel were tragically flawed, so a real revival, one that will really turn the hearts of people to God and produce the fruits of everlasting righteousness must be led by someone greater the Samson. It must be led by God himself.

July 16, 2011

Saturday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.107:1-16, Judges 10:17, 11:29-40, Lk. 8:1-15
Evening - Nehemiah 13:23-31, Acts 15:22-35

Commentary

We learn from Nehemiah that faith is much more than external rituals; it is a Covenant life with God that includes an inward disposition of the heart. The Covenant life is expressed in the Covenant forms. In the Old Testament those forms consisted of being part of the nation of Israel, worshiping God in the prayers and via the Temple sacrifices, and rituals, and the much deeper sense of love of God above all, and living in peace and active good will with the Covenant people. In the New Testament the forms are prayer, Scripture, public and private worship, and the other things by which God draws us into Himself. In both Testaments, the outward forms without the inward disposition are meaningless. Going forward in a crusade, Confirmation, church attendance, and Holy Communion are not the end of faith, whole hearted Covenant life is. Whole hearted covenant life is fed and accomplished through the outward forms of prayer, worship, and the other means of grace, so the heart and the forms feed and strengthen each other, and both are essential parts of the Covenant life.

We close our study in Nehemiah with the lesson that we cannot truthfully live the covenant life without honouring God in our home life. No matter what our station in the home, we are to devote ourselves to it without reservation. The Jews had not done this. They had intermarried with people who worshiped other gods and followed other values. This weakened the Jewish home. It made an essential part of the Covenant community a non-covenanting part. It robbed the Jews of the blessings of a Godly home. It robbed the children of the blessings of being raised in the Covenant. It undermined their faith, and led them into the sin of idolatry. In a similar way, marriage between a Christian and an unbeliever robs the Christian of a Christian home, robs the children of the strong foundation a Christian home provides, and robs God of another Covenant family.

The Jews saw this in their own city. Children of the mixed marriages were a combination of Jew and pagan. They had pagan ways and values that opposed and negated those of the community of faith. Through them, the pagan ways were infiltrating the Covenant community. They were a major impediment to the return to the Covenant. They even threatened to lead the Jews back into compromise and idolatry as Solomon's wives had bone. Their presence in Jerusalem shows that compromise was already happening.

July 14, 2011

Friday after the Third sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 102, Judges 7:16, Lk. 7:36
Evening - Ps. 116, Neh. 13:15-22, Acts 15:31-21

Commentary

The Jewish people have seen a wonderful revival among them. They have seen the Holy City go from a decaying ruin to a secure fortress with royal protection. They have seen the Faith of the people revived, and they have seen the people return to God and to His Covenant. There has been much confession and repentance of sin, for as they heard the Law read and expounded they became mournfully aware that their ancestors had turned away from God, and their people had rejected the Covenant. They found that it was not only their ancestors who had sinned against God; they themselves were guilty. They had forsaken God. They had rejected the Covenant.

Their repentance was not in word alone. They matched their words with their deeds, keeping both the letter and the spirit of the Law of God. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. They offered the sacrifices in faith. They kept the feasts and the fasts according to the Covenant God had made with their forefathers. They returned to the Bible and made it their rule and guide in life again. The revival is almost complete, but not quite. The first verses of Nehemiah 13 show that some of the priests were allied with the enemies of God and were giving the Levites' portion of the tithes to Tobiah (1-10). This was remedied by Nehemiah (11-14).

In tonight's reading we see that the Jews still had problems with the Sabbath. The Sabbath is about much more than going to "church" or refraining from work and worldly amusements. It was about honouring God, trusting Him to provide for physical needs, and finding joy in Him.

It honours God by devoting a full day to His service. Everything else is set aside to seek and honour God on the Sabbath. It recognises Him as God, as Lord, and Master and Owner of all things, especially the lives and property of the Jewish people.

It trusts God by putting their prosperity into His hands. Instead of spending the day working on their homes and earning a living, they spend the day with God. This means they are trusting Him to provide for them. Instead of working the farms and crops, they trust them into the care of God for the Sabbath. This also means they are seeking God instead of following an endless pursuit of the world's goods. Working seven days a week would enable them to cultivate more land, raise more crops and flocks, make more money, and become more prosperous. Devoting the Sabbath to God meant they had to be satisfied with less money, and live a simpler life. It also showed them that some things are more valuable than more money, and the Sabbath Day was reserved for those things; for God, worship fellowship, and family.

Keeping the Sabbath instead of spending it as "a day off" for personal pursuits and worldly amusements is also an act of faith which finds its joy in God instead of worldly things. It is not a day to play; it is a day for God. The joy of the Sabbath was the worship and service of God. These are lessons the Church of today desperately needs to learn and practice.

Nehemiah could force the Gentiles to stay away from Jerusalem on the Sabbath, but he could not make the Jews honour the Sabbath in their hearts. That had to come from within them by the grace of God.

July 13, 2011

Thursday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 94, Judges 7:1-8, Lk. 7:18-35
Evening - Ps. 111, 114, Neh. 9:32, Acts 15:1-12

Commentary

Tonight's reading continues the sermon begun in Nehemiah 9:5. The sermon is basically a short summary of the history of the Jewish people in light of the Covenant of God. I encourage you to include verses 16-31 in your reading because they shed important light on the conclusion drawn in verse 33, "Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly." This conclusion is continued in verses 34 and 35 which confess that kings and people, and even the priests of Israel have not kept the Covenant, "neither turned they from their wicked works." Because of their sin the people are servants in their own land (36). They are not a free and independent nation, they are part of the Persian Empire and subject to its king. They are forced to pay taxes to support Persia (37).

It is not just their ancestors who have sinned, the present generation is just as guilty (37). They have not kept the Covenant. The days of hearing the Law read and expounded to them have shown them how far they have strayed from the Covenant. So they are confessing their sin and turning back to God, turning back to the Covenant He made with them. Verse 38 is the beginning of a list of Jews who intend to keep the Covenant. These people have made a covenant to keep the Covenant.

This is a tremendous occasion. It represents a true desire to be a Jew in heart as well as ethnicity. The signers of this covenant will not be satisfied with only the outward forms of the faith. Their hearts and lives are now devoted to God, and they intend to serve Him by keeping the letter and the spirit of the Covenant.

Every Christian has made a covenant to keep the Covenant. I do not mean we have promised to offer sacrifices and move to Jerusalem. We have become keepers of the Covenant as it is fulfilled in Christ Jesus. We have confessed our sins and trusted in Him as our peace offering and atonement sacrifice to God. We have returned to Him and now dwell in Him and live a new life in Him in which we keep His commandments, and love His people.

July 12, 2011

Wednesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 92, Judges 6:1, 11-16, 33-35, Lk. 7:11-17
Evening - Ps. 104, Neh. 9:5-15, Acts 14:19

For seven days the people gathered as one in Jerusalem, and each day Ezra and the priests read and expounded the Law of God to them. It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this time. These people are returning to God on His terms. They are returning to the Bible. For hours each day they hear the Bible read and explained. Ezra probably started with Genesis and read straight through the five books of Moses, called the Torah, or Law. The significance of these books is that in them God invites the Jews into His Covenant, promises many great things to them, and tells them what they must do as their part of the "bargain." Basically, their part is to receive pardon from sin, and be lead into a new and better life with God as their God. God forgives their sins and wraps them in His everlasting love, gives them a land in which to dwell, and shows them how He is to be known and worshiped. They are the receivers in all parts of this Covenant. Even their obligations to love God above all else and serve Him in Godly worship are more like blessings than duties. It is light and life to the soul to know and serve God. The knowledge of Him is eternal life; His service is perfect freedom. The Jews were re-learning this during these days in the Scripture, and in learning them, they were re-dedicating themselves to being God's Covenant people. It has been many generations since something like this has happened in Jerusalem. Most of the Jew's history consisted of declining away from the Covenant and returning to idolatry and other sins. Times like this are rare, and noteworthy, and comparable to the Reformation in their scope and significance.

A very important part of this time is that, as the people heard the Covenant read and explained, they realised how far they and their ancestors had fallen short of it. More accurately, they realised that they and their ancestors had simply and intentionally rejected the Covenant, and that Covenant breaking was the habitual direction of their individual and corporate life. Their confession was no blanket statement. Fully one fourth of the day was filled with hearing Law, and one fourth spent in deep and honest confession (Neh.9:3). This is the kind of confession I wrote about during Lent, and you are invited to review those comments in earlier posts on this site, and read again of the nature, meaning, and process of true repentance. We notice that the first day of the reading of the Law was an occasion of great gladness. But now the Law has convicted them of their sin, and they are gathered to hear it in sackcloth and ashes, the garb of great sorrow before God. On the first day they rejoiced and celebrated. Now they confess sin and fast in their shame. I dare say the Church of our own time could benefit from such time in the Word of God, and that it would be much more of a "revival" than the emotional gimmicks found in many churches.

Nehemiah 9:5-15 begins a sermon, probably written by Ezra and preached by the Levites, probably those who aided him in the preceding days. Having spent the morning hearing the Word read and the afternoon in prayer and fasting, the Levites return to the pulpits with this sermon, which they preach simultaneously at various places to enable all the people to hear. The sermon continues to the end of the chapter and recounts their history from the call of Abraham (Abram) to their present hour. Verses 5-15 retell the call of Abraham and the Exodus, emphasising the grace of God in choosing Israel and blessing them as His people.

Tuesday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.89:1-9, Judges 5:19, Lk. 7:1-10
Evening - Ps. 90, Neh. 8:1-3, 5-6, 9-12, Acts 14:8-18

Commentary

Tonight's reading covers an event so significant in the life of the Jewish people it is worthy to be equated with Passover, crossing the Red Sea, receiving the Law at Sinai, and the moral/spiritual revival of Godliness in the time of Josiah the king. The event is the mass gathering of the Jewish people to hear the reading of the Law of God on one of the Old Testament feast days called the Feast of the Trumpets (Num. 29:1). The people have gathered in the street because the Temple can not hold them, and they have gathered to hear again the words of the grace of God, and the life to which they are called. To this point, the revival of the Covenant in Jerusalem has been sporadic, and based upon general knowledge and memory, rather than direct contact with the Scriptures. The people knew they were to offer sacrifices, so they did. They knew they were to rebuild the Temple, so they did. They knew they were to dwell in and possess the land, so they rebuilt the wall. All of these efforts were aimed at returning to God and being people of the Covenant again. They were good and necessary things, but apart from the Word of Scripture, they lacked unity of purpose and direction. The people worked from memory, not daily experience with the revelation of God. All of that changed when Ezra read the Bible to this great and solemn assembly in Jerusalem. This day is a return to Scripture.

The people had built a pulpit, a tower for this purpose. It was tall enough for Ezra to be seen by all the people, and all were silent as he ascended the steps. All of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside were there. People of great age who had built the new Temple stood beside children. Young families with infants stood beside grand parents.. All were quiet. All were intent on the proceedings. All who were old enough to understand realised this was a momentous occasion.

When Ezra opened the scroll, all the people stood, for they had been kneeling in the position of prayer. Verse 6 says Ezra blessed the Lord. This is the traditional, liturgical blessing said when the books of the Law, called the Torah, are opened in the Temple or synagogues, as it has been said for thousands of years. It is sung by the priest and followed by the amen of the people, also sung, in a manner very much like the amen at the end of a hymn today. The "amen" is the people's assent and commitment to the prayer. In it they affirm their assent to the meaning of the prayer, and beseech God to grant their request, or receive their thanksgiving and worship. It is as to say, "Let it be so, O Lord."

The gathering was so large it was impossible for Ezra to be heard by all. So, at strategic places throughout the area, other priests were stationed. Watching Ezra, they simultaneously mounted their pulpits, turned to the same passage of Scripture, read the same words, and gave the same prepared instruction on the meaning of the text. So, throughout the city the people heard the Word, prayed, and worshiped as one. When Ezra led the Jews in worship it had been nearly 150 years since these liturgies and readings had been publicly conducted by the Jewish people as a whole in Jerusalem, and it is a moving experience. It is another step deeper into the Covenant, another step back to God. And this time, it is the Scripture, not memory, which guides them.

July 10, 2011

Monday after the Third Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 86, Judges 5:1-18, Lk. 6:39
Evening - Ps. 84, 85, Neh. 5:1-13, Acts 13:44-14:7

Commentary

The Covenant of God includes duties to Him and to other people of the Covenant. We see this easily in the Ten Commandments, for the first four are about our relationship with God and remaining six are about our duties to one another. People are not called into an individual Covenant with God; we are, and always have been, called into the Community of the Covenant. It is within this Covenant Community that we are baptized, instructed in the faith, worship God on the Lord's Day, and celebrate the feast of Holy Communion. In fact, every aspect of our lives, as a man or woman of God, is lived within the context of the community of faith. In the New Testament era this community is called the Church, which refers to both its universal and local manifestations. In the Old Testament that community was called Israel, or, by the time of Nehemiah, Judah. One of the problems with the Jews who remained in Shushan, Babylon, or Egypt, is that they were no longer functioning within the Covenant Community. Even if they formed synagogues and kept the ritual law in these lands, they were still branches severed from the vine. The Jewish community was not to be scattered, nor were its people to be dispersed into groups in distant lands. They were to be a vital, living part of the community in the land God had given to them. Likewise, today, Christians are to be vital members of the community of faith. But, unlike the Jews, we are called to go into all the world. We are called to infiltrate every nation with the Gospel. Those who respond in faith are received into the universal community through the local part of that community, the local church.

Received into that community, we now are under obligation to it. We are to give ourselves to its instruction, leadership, and discipline. We enter into the spiritual discipline of prayer, Scriptures, fellowship, sacraments, and worship of the Church. When we fail in this discipline, the Church, through its ministers, has authority to call us back, and to exclude those who will not return.

In the fifth chapter of Nehemiah, the Jews have neglected their Covenant obligations to one another. Rather than working together as brethren in the Lord, some have been profiteering from the scarce food supply caused by a drought. They have sold grain at exorbitant prices, taken land and homes away from their brethren in exchange for food, and even enslaved their neighbor's children as payment. Others stole to feed their families, while still others sold their land for food. All of this was in direct violation of the Law of God and the Covenant duties of the Jews toward one another. Nehemiah verbally chastises them for treating each other so. He clearly sees this as a religious issue (rather than a social issue), in which the people are breaking the Covenant with God.

This is a good place to state that the laws of the Covenant Community do not always apply directly to those outside of it. The land of Israel, for example, was given to the Jews as their heritage, and could not be taken away from its owners except under very limited circumstances, and even then, only for a specified number of years. But this does not preclude buying and selling and investing in land by Gentiles, nor does the action urged by Nehemiah mean any person is necessarily owed food and support. Much harm has been done by well meaning people who have tried to apply Covenant Community obligations to people, business and nations that are not part of the Covenant.

Nehemiah urges the Jews to restore what rightfully belongs to others, and to deal charitably with the poor through voluntary charitable activities. He shakes dust from his robe with the prayer that God will shake out of the Covenant everyone who does not fulfill his Covenant duties.

July 8, 2011

Saturday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 73, Josh. 23:1-3,11-16, Lk. 6:27-38
Evening - Ps 66, Neh. 4:6, Acts 13:26-43

Commentary

The Lectionary passes from the second to the fourth chapter of Nehemiah. Chapter 3 recounts the beginning of the work on the wall of Jerusalem. The first 5 verse of chapter 4 tell of more mocking and opposition from Sanballat and others. Tonight's reading starts in 4:6, an able summary of these events; "So we built the wall: and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof; for the people had a mind to work." This means the wall was half finished at this point in the book. The enemies here have moved from ridiculing the work to planning actual violence against the Jews (4:8). The apparent vulnerability of the Jews is shown in verses 10-12. They were tired. They were so spread out along the wall that an attacking force could breach their line before the soldiers were able to move in to battle them. Due to the rubble and other conditions, invaders could sneak in close to the wall and launch a surprise attack on the already vulnerable Jews. The solution, everyone builds, and everyone soldiers. They worked in shifts, spending part of the time building and part of the time at ready arms (4:21). Those building kept their weapons at the ready. They were so prepared that those working as builders worked with one hand and carried their weapon with the other (4:16-18). A signal was decided upon. If an attack came at one point, the sentries would sound a trumpet, and all would take their weapons to meet the enemy at the point of attack. They did not retire to their homes at night. They slept at their places on the wall. They did not stop this routine until the wall was completed.

These people have returned to the Covenant. They are possessing the land, and they are doing the work necessary to dwell in the land God had given them.

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.

July 6, 2011

Thursday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.63, Joshua 6:1-7, 11, 14-20, Luke 6:1-11
Evening - Ps. 65, Neh. 2:1-8, Acts 12:25-13:12

Commentary

In chapter1, Nehemiah repented of his sin. He was called to be a Jew, not a Persian. He was called to be a member of the Covenant People of God, and to dwell with the people of the Covenant in the land God promised to them, and gave to them, where they were to love and serve Him as one people. But Nehemiah has been living as a Gentile all of his life. Yes, he had a Jewish education. Yes, he went to synagogue, and studied the Scriptures, and probably kept much of the ceremonial law, but he did it from the safety of Shushan. He was happily disconnected from the demands of Jerusalem, and happily not fulfilling his calling as a member of the Covenant people. How often we run happily along in our own little world, tragically unaware that even our religion is sinful in God's eyes. Nehemiah repented of his sin, and in chapter two he prepared to go to Jerusalem.

But Nehemiah was an important servant in the king's household. He did not simply taste the wine for the king; he ran the wine cellar and possibly much of the vineyard. It was his job to ensure the quality and safety of the king's wine. Yet he was still a servant, and he became afraid when the king noticed his sadness (2:2). Kings usually want cheer and frivolity at meals, not sadness, which can spoil the mood. Emboldened by the king's apparent sympathy, Nehemiah requests to be sent to Jerusalem with permission and aid to rebuild the walls of the city.

Any smart king would have gladly granted Nehemiah's request. Sending him to Jerusalem, with a small company of Persian soldiers, and rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem under the hand of a proven loyal servant would give Persia a military stronghold on the frontier between Persia and the other area superpower, Egypt. Artaxerxes wisely agreed to Nehemiah's request.

This is more than just a smart move by a king. This is the providence of God at work in the life of His people. He is bringing them back to their purpose and calling by His own power. He raised up Babylon to punish the Jews. He has raised up Persia to restore them. He works all things according to the counsel of His own will.

July 5, 2011

Wednesday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 57, Joshua 4:1-8, Lk, 5:27
Evening - Ps. 61, 62, Nehemiah. 1, Acts 12:1-24

Commentary

The book of Nehemiah is often misunderstood; therefore, it is usually ignored by Christians and clergy. When it is studied it usually becomes the foundation for lessons and sermons about proper planning, wise use of resources, and effective leadership. But Nehemiah is about much more than building projects or good management. Nehemiah is about being the people of God. In Nehemiah we finally see the Jews return to Jerusalem, determined to be the people of God.

Like Ezra, Nehemiah was not among those who returned to Jerusalem after the Jews were released from Captivity. Born outside of Judea, he lived in the capitol of the Persian Empire, Shushan, where he was the king's cup bearer. His job was to ensure that the king's wine was not poisoned, meaning he had take a large drink of it before handing it to the king. If he lived, the king would drink the wine. If he died, the king hired another taster.

It in was the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, or about 445 B.C., that Nehemiah heard from recent visitors to Jerusalem that the city was still in moral, spiritual, and economic decay (1:3). More than 90 years after Cyrus released the Jews, freed them to return to Jerusalem, and even gave them money and protection to rebuild their city and Temple, the city was still in shambles and apostasy. The brief revival that occurred when Haggai and Zechariah encouraged them to rebuild the Temple and return to the Covenant of God had burned out, and the people had returned to ungodliness and unbelief. Ezra moved to Jerusalem in 458 B.C., and a brief revival of the old faith ensued. But 13 years later (445 B.C.), when Nehemiah enquired about conditions in Jerusalem he received only bad news.

How could Nehemiah expect otherwise? The poverty stricken Jews in Jerusalem were surrounded by enemies, and had given up attempting to follow God. But what about the Jews who remained in Babylon and Persia? Had they not abandoned the call and Covenant of God? Had they not traded God for the "good life" in lands of ease and plenty? Had God called them to dwell in Shushan and Babylon and Egypt? Was their dwelling place optional? Or had God called them to dwell in the land He gave them, and be His people there (1:9)? It seems the people who had not returned to Jerusalem were equally as guilty of breaking the Covenant as the people in Judea. They were shirking their calling. They were concerned with their personal comforts rather than the will of God. Nehemiah finally realised this in verses 4-11. He had been concerned about Jerusalem, from the safety of Shushan. But he suddenly realised his concern was phony, a pious cover-up to ease his conscience for forsaking his calling and duty to God. His prayer was a prayer of confession and repentance as he accepted his guilt, and determined to go to Jerusalem.

It is not difficult to find applications for this passage to the Church and Christians of today. Many in the Church are simply names on the roll, not serious about being the Church of Jesus Christ. Others sit in comfortable pews of churches, where the demands of the Bible are ignored, and just enough of the Bible is kept to give the appearance of Christianity. To leave their comfortable pews and face the sacrifices and challenges of a real Church is unthinkable to them. Still others forsake the Church entirely. They call themselves Christians, and may be on a church roll, but their affection for God and His people is done from a safe distance. They have no intention of actually exchanging their phony, cover-up faith for the real thing. The only cure for such behaviour is repentance. Like Nehemiah, we all need to remember what God has commanded us to do and be, and where He has chosen to set His name (1:6-10).

July 4, 2011

Tuesday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 49, Joshua 3:1-6, 13-17, Lk. 5:12-26
Evening - Ps. 50, Ezra 8:15-23, 31-36, Acts 11:19

Commentary

Life has become good for the Jews in Babylon. Freed from their oppression, they have become productive citizens of the city, often rising to great heights in social and financial status. Living in the capitol city offered many advantages. It was heavily defended, so the probability of conquest was remote. It was wealthy and offered many ways to make a very comfortable living, and it tolerated a relaxed approach to faith that appealed to many Jews. It was far removed from the demands and dangers of the frontier type of existence of those in Jerusalem. Yet, Ezra longed to leave it for the Holy City. He longed to call the people back to God, and help them re-establish themselves as the Covenant people of God. Having the letter from Artaxerxes, Ezra has gathered influential people who are prepared to go with him. On the shores of the River Ahava, as the pilgrims stop to take stock of their people and resources, a shocking discovery is made; no priests have come. No priests were willing to face the hardship and danger. No priests were willing to leave the comfort of well-paying synagogues in Babylon. No priests were willing to do that which they were called to do, serve in the Temple in Jerusalem (8:15). By the grace of God this problem was solved, and 258 priests joined the caravan for Jerusalem (8:18-20). The articles and money for the Temple was put into their care, and the caravan traveled without military escort to Jerusalem (8:22).

Their entrance into Jerusalem was received with great joy. They and the people recorded the money and articles brought for the Temple (8:33) and a great day of worship was observed. It is noteworthy that the sacrifices were all given as burnt offerings and sin offerings. They were not eaten by the people, but devoured by the fire of the altar as acts of faith, confession, and dedication to God.

July 3, 2011

Monday after the Second Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.48, Joshua 1, Lk. 4:42-5:11
Evening - Ps. 121, 122 Ezra 7:1-6, 16, 25-28, Acts 11:18

Commentary

The previous chapters of the book of Ezra have given a short history of those Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. Its primary purpose is to recount the events and circumstances leading to the completion of the new Temple. Chapter seven begins the history of the ministry of Ezra in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, or, 458 B.C. He is shown to be a priest whose ancestry can be traced to Aaron, brother of Moses (1-5). He is also a ready scribe (7:6) who was educated in the law of God (theology), earnest of heart to keep the law as a Covenant child of God, and skilled in teaching the Scriptures to the people (7:7-10).

Ezra probably had not even been born when the first band of captives left Babylon for Jerusalem 78 years earlier in 536 B.C. His parents had remained in Babylon, where he had learned the Scriptures and the work of the priest. But his heart yearned to see the Jews dedicate themselves to keeping the Covenant of God, and, for this purpose, he was willing to sacrifice a promising career in a place of wealth, for the dangers and uncertainty of an impoverished and backsliding Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was backsliding. It had been 57 years since the Temple was completed, and most of the generation which had worked on it had passed away. Their children and grandchildren were sinking back into the paganism that had plagued the Jews for so long and tried the patience of God to the point of allowing the Babylonian Captivity. Ezra is being sent by God to call the people back to God once again.

Verses 11-26 contain a copy of a letter sent to Ezra from the king of Persia. Verses 27-28 show the priest's joy that God has moved the king's heart to such kindness toward the Jews. In verse 28, Ezra gathers influential Jews together who will support and go with him on his mission to that city which should have been sending missionaries from it into the world.

July 1, 2011

Saturday after the First Sunday after Trinity

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 44, Dt. 34, Lk. 4:31-41
Evening - Ps. 46, 47, Zech. 8:14, Acts 10:34

Commentary

Zechariah 8:14-23 continues the wondrously good news that God has returned to Zion. Because the Jewish people had forsaken Him He withdrew His grace and protection from them, and allowed them to be devoured by their enemies. But now He has returned in grace to accomplish His purpose for His people. As He did not turn back from His wrath, He also will not turn back from His mercy (14-15). As surely as His words of wrath were fulfilled, His words of mercy will also be fulfilled. He will do good things for Jerusalem and Judah, thus, they can have confidence in Him. They may draw near to Him in faith, rather than run from Him in fear.

He calls the Jews to return to Him as He has returned to them. The call is not simply to rebuild a landmark and re-institute religious activity. The call is to turn their hearts to God as He has turned His to them. The call is to live in fellowship and peace with one another and with God. It is a call to come to God with sincerity and truth in worship. God does not tell them to dispense with liturgy in order to worship Him with their heart. He tells them to put their heart into the liturgy. The Temple worship is formal, but it is not dead formalism, and it means nothing if the heart of the people is not in it. Let the service of God in worship and in everyday life be joy to the house of Judah (8:19). When the heart is in it, it will be joy to worship God.

This will cause many to want to return to Jerusalem and to the Covenant (8:20-21). Many Jews did not return to Jerusalem at the end of the Captivity. Many found new lives in the lands where they had once been prisoners. They did not want to return to Jerusalem, a land of poverty, hardship, and danger. They enjoyed the looser approach to the faith that was allowed in the Gentile lands. In short, they had no intention of returning to Jerusalem or making the sacrifices required to become the people of the Covenant again. The joy of the people in Jerusalem would be an invitation to them to return to God.

It would also induce Gentiles to seek the God of Israel. "Many people, and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord" (8:22). This will be fulfilled in greater glory in the New Jerusalem. Christ's Church will gather many people and strong nations into it in a way the old Jerusalem could never do. Verse 23 is also a picture of the day of Christ and the era of fulfillment in which we live. The first Christians were Jews and through the grace of God working in them, Gentiles have come to their God. May they also come to us, the spiritual children of Abraham, because they have heard that God is with us.