July 5, 2015

Scripture and Commentary, July 5-11

July 5

Nehemiah 1,  Mt. 4:17-25
Neh. 2,  Colossians 1


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 lives in the capitol of the Persian Empire, Shushan, where he is the king's cup bearer.  His job is to ensure that the king's wine is not poisoned, meaning he has take a large drink of it before handing it to the king.  If he lives, the king will drink the wine.  If he dies, the king hires another taster.

It is in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, or about 445 B.C., that Nehemiah hears from recent visitors to Jerusalem that the city is 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 is 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 has burned out, and the people hadve returned to ungodliness and unbelief.  Ezra moves to Jerusalem in 458 B.C., and a brief revival of the old faith ensues.  But 13 years later (445 B.C.), when Nehemiah enquires about conditions in Jerusalem he receives only bad news.

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

Nehemiah 2

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 prepares to go to Jerusalem.

But Nehemiah is an important servant in the king's household.  He does not simply taste the wine for the king; he runs the wine cellar and possibly much of the vineyards.  It is his job to ensure the quality and safety of the king's wine.  Yet he is still a servant, and he becomes 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 agrees 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.  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.

Three themes continually occur in the book of Nehemiah; Grace, Providence, and 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 descendants of Abraham.  God is keeping His Covenant. 

It was by grace that God called Abraham and His descendants 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 God 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 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 Canaan.  It is not just a refusal of God's gift; it is a refusal to keep the Covenant.  Those in Jerusalem are 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 sin, and comes to Jerusalem to join his people and 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.  Some of the opposition is from descendants 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 centre of worship and orthodoxy.  This will expose the Samaritan comprised faith as a false religion; they cannot tolerate that. They may also fear that a well fortified Jerusalem will become the military and commercial centre 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 prevalent, obvious, and numerous.  We still have false believers who would rather hinder the progress of the Gospel than repent of their compromised faith.  We still have people who want the blessings of being God’s people, but prefer to live in “Persia.” We still have people who prefer the relaxed, self-centred faith of those who have compromised with the world and accepted its values and ideas.  We still have people who want  the blessings of Heaven but refuse to make the sacrifices and suffer the hardships to dwell in “Jerusalem."  We still see the constant love of God providentially guiding and preserving His true Church.  And  we still hear God's constant call to repent and return to the Covenant.

July 6

Neh, 4:1-12,  Mt. 5:1-20
Neh 4:13-23  ,  Col. 2


Nehemiah 4

Chapter 3 recounts the beginning of the work on the wall of Jerusalem.  The first 5 verses of chapter 4 tell of more mocking and opposition from Sanballat and others.  4:6 is 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 is 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  are tired.  They are so thinly spread along the wall that an attacking force can breach their line before the soldiers  can move in to defend it.  Due to the rubble and other conditions, invaders can sneak in close to the wall and launch a surprise attack on the already vulnerable Jews.  The solution; everyone builds, and everyone soldiers.  They work in shifts, spending part of the time building and part of the time at ready arms (4:21).  Those building keep their weapons at the ready.  They are so prepared that those working as builders work with one hand and carry their weapons with the other (4:16-18).  A signal is decided upon.  If an attack comes at one point, the sentries will sound a trumpet, and all will take their weapons to meet the enemy at the point of attack.  They do not retire to their homes at night.  They sleep at their places on the wall. They  continue this routine until the wall is 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

Neh. 5,  Mt. 5:21-48
Neh 6,  Col. 3


Nehemiah 5

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 is called Israel, or, by the time of Nehemiah, Judah.  One of the problems with the Jews who remain in Shushan, Babylon, or Egypt, is that they are no longer functioning within the Covenant Community.  Even if they form synagogues and keep the ritual law in these lands, they are still branches severed from the vine. The Jewish community is not to be scattered, nor are its people to be dispersed into groups in distant lands.  They are to be a vital, living part of the community in the land God has given to them.

Likewise, today, Christians are to be vital members of the community of faith in its universal and local, congregational forms.  All people of all nations 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 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 are neglecting their Covenant obligations to one another.  Rather than working together as brethren in the Lord, some are profiteering from the scarce food supply caused by a drought.  They sell grain at exorbitant prices, take land and homes away from their brethren in exchange for food, and even enslave their neighbours' children as payment.  Others steal to feed their families, while still others sell their land for food.  All of this ss 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 specific 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.  Socialism, communism, and government re-distribution of wealth are sad and costly examples of this.

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.

Nehemiah 6

July 8

Neh. 8, Mt. 6:1-15
Neh. 9, Col. 4

Nehemiah 8

Nehemiah 8 covers an event so significant in the life of the Jewish people it is worthy to be compared 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 at the Feast of the Trumpets (Num. 29:1).  The people gather in the street because the Temple can not hold them, and they gather 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 changes when Ezra reads the Bible to this great and solemn assembly in Jerusalem.  This day is a return to Scripture.

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

When Ezra opens the scroll, all the people stand, for they had been kneeling in prayerful stance.  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 if to say, "Let it be so, O Lord."

The gathering is so large it was impossible for Ezra to be heard by all.  So, at strategic places throughout the area, other priests are stationed.  Watching Ezra, they simultaneously mount their pulpits, turn to the same passage of Scripture, read the same words, and give the same prepared instruction on the meaning of the text.  So, throughout the city the people hear the Word, prayed, and worship as one.  It has been nearly 150 years since the liturgies and readings of the day have 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.

Nehemiah 9

For seven days the people gather as one in Jerusalem, and each day Ezra and the priests read and expound the Law of God to them.  It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of this. These people are returning to God.  They are returning to the Bible.  For hours each day they hear the Bible read and explained.  Ezra probably starts with Genesis and reads 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 led 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 are re-learning this during these days in the Scripture, and, in learning them, they are 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 Jews' history is the story of their departure 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 hear the Covenant read and explained, they realise how far they and their ancestors have fallen short of it.  More accurately, they realise that they and their ancestors have simply and intentionally rejected the Covenant, and that Covenant breaking is the habitual direction of their individual and corporate life.  Their confession is no blanket statement.  Fully one fourth of the day is filled with hearing the Law, and one fourth is spent in deep and honest confession (Neh.9:3). This is the kind of confession I wrote about during Lent, and the reader is urged to go to www.lifeinthescriptures.blogspot.com and read again of the nature, meaning, and process of true repentance.  We notice that the first day of the reading of the Law is an occasion of great gladness.  But now that the Law has convicted them of their sin, and they are gather 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 do much more good than most of the programs and "revivals" found in many churches.

Nehemiah 9:5-15 begins a sermon, probably written by Ezra and preached by the Levites 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.

The sermon is basically a short summary of the history of the Jewish people in light of the Covenant of God.  It is designed to lead the people to 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, subject to its king, and 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 of obedience in which we keep His commandments, and love His spiritual Jerusalem, the Church.

July 9

Neh. 10.  Mt. 6:16-34
Neh. 13:1-14,  1 Thessalonians 1


Nehemiah 10

Nehemiah 13:1-14

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 are allied with the enemies of God and are giving the Levites' portion of the tithes to Tobiah (1-10).  This is remedied by Nehemiah (11-14).

But some Jews still have problems with the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is about much more than going to "church" or refraining from work and worldly amusements.  It is 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 people.

It trusts God by putting their prosperity into His hands.  Instead of spending the day working on their homes and earning money, the day is spent with God.  This requires trusting Him to provide for physical needs.  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 means they have to be satisfied with less money, and live a simpler life.  It also shows that some things are more valuable than money.  The Sabbath Day is 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 is the worship and service of God.  These are lessons the Church of today desperately needs to learn and practice.

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

July 10

Neh. 13:15-31,  Mt. 7
Esther 1, 1 Thess. 2


Nehemiah 13:15-31

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, 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 done.  Their presence in Jerusalem shows that compromise is already happening.

Esther 1

The book of Esther describes events that occur in Sushan, the Persian capital, from about 483-437 B.C. The city is a little more than 200 miles west of Babylon, and very opulent and secure.  Ahasureus, the king, is also known as Xerxes, invites the rich and powerful leaders of his empire to his palace for a feast which lasts 180 days. The purpose of the feast is to display the wealth and military power of the king. This will serve to show how generous the king can be to his allies, and how impossible and foolish disloyalty or rebellion against him would be. Some have suggested the time was also used to plan an invasion of Greece. 

At the end of this feast, the king has a seven day party, during which the wine flows freely, and the inebriated king orders the queen to appear at the party so everyone can see how beautiful she is. The queen refuses, which causes the other men to worry that their wives and harems will hear of it and stop obeying them. Outside of Israel, women were considered as little better than property. Therefore, the primary topic of the men's conversation becomes how to punish the queen.  Memucan suggests that the king decree, “That Vashti come no more before king Ahasureus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is that better than she” (vs.19).  “And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan” (vs.21).

July 11

Esther 2,  Mt. 8:1-17
Esther 3,  1 Thess. 3


Esther 2

As we saw in Ezra and Nehemiah, not all Jews return to Jerusalem when Cyrus releases them in 536.  Mordecai and his wife still reside in Shushan 17 years after the release, and other Jews Live throughout the Persian Empire. But it was not God's purpose for the Jews to live in foreign lands. They were called to live as the people of God, keeping his Covenant, and worshiping Him according to His law in the land which He had given them. In Genesis 12:1, we read, “Get thee out of thy country… unto a land that I will show thee.”  In Genesis 1:7 God says, “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” Exodus 6 reiterates the promise, “I Will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God… And 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). Jews who did not return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile were forsaking their calling and their God. Yet God did not forsake them the book of Esther recounts his providential care of Jews outside of Judea. Truly he is the father of all mercies.”

In chapter 2, Ahasureus, King of Persia, Has banished the queen, essentially dethroning and divorcing her for not appearing at his drunken, pagan festival in chapter 1. He willingly accepts the advice to have beautiful virgins from throughout the Empire brought to him so he can choose one to be the new queen, and add the others to his harem (2:14).

Mordecai and Esther have accommodated themselves to the pagan faith and culture of the Persian Empire. Therefore, they view Esther as a viable candidate for the king’s harem.  Naturally, the pagan people around them also regard Esther as a candidate.  Their accommodation to, and acceptance of, the pagan culture naturally allows the people of that culture to think of them as one of their own. Therefore, the world accepts them as its own and treats them as its own.   So, while the Jews in Jerusalem attempt to separate themselves from the world by sending away the pagan women they had married, Esther becomes a concubine to the king of Persia.

Esther 3

In chapter 3 we see Esther in her new role as Queen of Persian. She is well favoured, partly because she saved the king’s life by warning him of a plot against him (2:21-23). Things look good for her. Maybe this compromise of faith will work out well. Not so, for Haman is rising to power and hatching a plot to annihilate the Jews.  Esther is soon going to be forced to make a choice for or against God.  

Haman is a very proud man who loves the way the people bow to him and give him reference, everyone, that is, except Mordecai (3:2).  Why does Mordecai not bow to Haman? Perhaps it is because he is related to the queen. Perhaps it is because he knows Haman wants to destroy the Jews. Perhaps it is because he realises the sinfulness of encouraging Esther to become the king’s wife.

How much can a person compromise? Once compromised begins, where does it end? If one doctrine of Scripture can be compromised, why can't all? If one doctrine can be given up, why can't all? Does not one compromise actually forfeit the entire faith? The world understands this. The world knows this that getting ministers to deny the deity or resurrection of Christ, for example, leads people to deny the entire Christian faith. Such people may still attend church, but they have no Biblical faith. They have only a moral or philosophical system. They may claim Divine sanction for their system, but why should anyone believe in it if the book from which they claim to derive it is wrong about some of the foundational issues of Christian faith and practice?

1 Kings 18 records the famous spiritual battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Actually the clash was between the God of Israel and the idol of Baal. Many Israelites, including the king and queen, openly worshiped Baal. In verse 21 Elijah asks, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him." This is the very issue Mordecai faces in the book of Esther. He has been halting between two opinions all his life. He is unwilling to go to Jerusalem and live as a Jew. But now he is also unwilling to give himself completely to the pagan culture of Persia. Compromise is not working. It is not working for any of the Jews in Persia. They are all targeted in the accusations of Haman. They face an ominous choice they never expected to face; fully join the pagan culture, or die.

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