June 18, 2012

Scriptures and Commentary for Week of the Second Sunday after Trinity

Monday after the Second Sunday after Trinity


Morning - Ps.48, Joshua 1, Lk. 4:42-5:11
Evening - Ps. 42, 43, Ezra 7:1-28, Acts 11:18

Commentary, Ezra 7:1-28

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 missionaries from it into the world.

Tuesday after the Second Sunday after Trinity


Morning - Ps. 49, Joshua 3:1-7, Lk. 5:12-26
Evening - Ps. 50, Ezra 8:15-36, Acts 11:19

Commentary, Ezra 8:15-36

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 travelled 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.

Wednesday after the Second Sunday after Trinity


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

Commentary, Nehemiah 1

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).

Thursday after the Second Sunday after Trinity


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

Commentary, Nehemiah 2:1-8

In chapter 1, 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.

But 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.

Friday after the Second Sunday after Trinity


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

Commentary, Nehemiah 2:9

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 to 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.

Saturday after the Second Sunday after Trinity


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

Commentary, Nehemiah 4:6

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 defend it. 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.