June 30, 2017
A Table of Lessons for July
Ezra 1, Matthew 1
Ez. 3, Philippians 1
Ezra is part of a section of the Old Testament that tells the history of Israel from creation to the Jews’ return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity. Genesis through Esther comprise this history. They are followed in the Bible by the books, often called, Wisdom Literature, consisting of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. The Wisdom Literature is followed by the Prophets, beginning with Isaiah and ending with Malachi.
Like all Scripture, Ezra is organised around the ideas it intends to teach, and the first part, consisting of chapters 1-7, gives a short history of the Jews since the day Cyrus of Persia issued a decree allowing the Jews to return home and rebuild the Temple. You will remember that Israel divided into two nations after the death of Solomon. One nation, made up of the ten northern tribes, retained the name Israel. The second nation consisted of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, and was known as Judah. Israel suffered social and religious decline, and was eventually defeated by Assyria. The Israelites then largely adopted the ways and religions of their Gentile conquerors, and virtually lost their identity as the people of God. In the New Testament they are known as Samaritans. The Judeans, later known as "Jews," also experienced decline, and were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. They were forced to leave their homes and live in Babylon, thus, the era is known as the Babylonian Captivity, or Babylonian Exile.
By 538 the declining Babylonian Empire was conquered by Cyrus of Persia. The Babylonians followed a policy of removing conquered people from their homelands, and scattering them throughout the Empire. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians, he began a goodwill campaign toward the nations the Babylonians had relocated. He allowed them to return to their homelands, even giving them financial and military aid. This had the desired effect of promoting loyalty toward him, for the newly freed peoples considered Persia their liberator rather than their conqueror. Ezra 1:1-4 records Cyrus’ degree to the Jews, and verses 5-11 record a group of Jews return to Jerusalem, which occurred in 536. Thus we see the hand of Providence guiding history and accomplishing the purpose of God. The point of this passage is not that Cyrus was a good ruler. It is not an object lesson in the principles of good leadership. It is that God is still working with His people to accomplish His purpose of Redemption. He created this world for the purpose of bringing all things together in Christ. Returning Judah to Jerusalem is another step toward the completion of this plan. Yes, there are other messages here, such as the enduring mercy of God, His unstoppable power to save, conversion, repentance, and faith. People in positions of power can certainly profit from the example of Cyrus. But the pervading message here is the unstoppable progress of the purpose of God. He will accomplish the purpose for which He created this world and called the Jews. He will not fail.
Chapter 2 lists those who make up the first wave of Jews returning to Jerusalem. Verse 64 gives the total as 42,360, but verse 65 adds another 7,337 servants. So this is no small migration. Yet it is no military machine either, since a great number of the people are women, children, and servants. This is a comparatively weak band of pioneers going into a dangerous wilderness. Their courage is admirable.
Chapter 3 records their arrival in Jerusalem. The devastation of the area must have been terrible, and the people decide to settle in Jerusalem. This is not only the “Holy City” but also, due to the partial remnant of the city wall, the most secure and defensible place in the land. Almost immediately they build an altar and reinstate the offerings and feasts required by the Law. This shows that their quest is much more than “freedom” or a sentimental desire for the “homeland.” They intend to revive the true nature and calling of Israel, and they get right to work. In a very short time they attempt to rebuild the Temple, which had been plundered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. As the work progresses, more people arrive from Babylon, including priests and Levites "to set forward the work of the house of the Lord" (3:8). Their labours result in the very admirable task of laying the foundation of the new Temple, a feat accompanied by much celebration, and a few tears (3:12-13).
Ez. 4, Mt. 2
Ez. 5, Phil. 2
The first chapter of the book of Ezra records the decree of Cyrus releasing the Jews from captivity in Babylon. In 536 B.C. the first of several groups of Jews leaves Babylon, This is recorded in Ezra 2.
Their arrival is not unnoticed by the people who now inhabitant the land. When the Jews were taken to Babylon, other peoples moved into the area. Some were local tribes who were traditional enemies of the Jews, even including the remnants of Israel and other Jews. It is also likely that people from places as far away as Egypt came to claim what was left of the land and resources of the once powerful Hebrew nation. These people do not want to give up their holdings to the returning Jews, and they become adversaries from the very start. In chapter 4, some of these adversaries ask to be allowed to help with the Temple, but are refused. These particular adversaries are descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with Gentiles. They had also diluted their faith with pagan ideas and worship. On the surface their appeal to help rebuild the Temple appears good, and the rejection of their offer by the Jews (Ez. 4:2) seems cruel and arrogant. But perhaps the Jews understand that watered down, adulterated religion has to be rejected, and to allow its practitioners to help rebuild the Temple is to invite their erroneous faith into it when completed. It was just that kind of religious compromise that brought the judgment of God upon the Jews in the first place, and they have no intention of returning to it at this time.
Rather than repenting of their sin and purging themselves of false religion, the adversaries begin to make trouble for the Jews (4:4-6), even making false accusations to the king that the Jews are preparing to mount a rebellion against Persia (4:8-16). Believing the accusation to be true, the Persians send an army to Jerusalem to stop the rebuilding of the Temple by force of arms (4:23-24).
Thus chapter 4 ends with another foreign army occupying Jerusalem and enforcing a halt to the Jews' plan to return to the Law and the Covenant of God. The Jews must be angry at this, but they must also have questions. Aren't they trying to obey God? Aren't they trying to do what the Bible commands? Why isn't God making it easy for them? Why does He allow yet another army in Jerusalem to stop their progress?
Most of us face similar questions every day. We try to obey God, but, rather than finding the way easy and our efforts rewarded with success, we often find it blocked by the armies of our enemies. Overcoming one obstacle reveals not a clear and easy road ahead, but more and greater obstacles. It may be that our thinking needs to change if we are going to continue with Christ rather than give up in despair. Many have adopted the popular view that the Christian life is a luxury ride through life. It is not. It is a constant struggle with the world the flesh and the devil. We must expect this if we are not to be disappointed. Remember that our reward is in Heaven, not on earth. Here we are merely pilgrims. Our homes and our rest is in Heaven.
As noted, the first seven chapters of the book of Ezra give a brief history of the Jews who return from Babylon in, and shortly after, 536 B.C. Forced by military action to stop work on the new Temple, the work languishes, and so does the zeal of the Jewish people (4:23-24). The Lord raises up prophets to call them back to their work. It is important to note here that their work is not to simply build a new Temple or re-instate the sacrificial system. Their work is to be the Covenant People of God, and to love Him above all else. The Temple is a symbol of this. It is a symbol of His presence with them. The sacrifices offered there are symbols of their devotion to Him and His acceptance of them. They also symbolise the coming of the Messiah, whose sacrifice will actually take away their sins. The Temple is the place where God meets His people, where He makes them whole and clean, where He forgives their sins, and where they come to be in the presence of God. So the Temple is an important place and it serves an important function in Jerusalem. It is a focal point of the Covenant, and to be forced to stop rebuilding it is a serious blow to the Jewish people.
Chapter 5 records the ministries of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The result of their ministries is the renewed determination of the governor and the High Priest to build the Temple (5:2). Chapter 5:6-17 is a copy of the letter sent by the Jews in Jerusalem to the new king of Persia explaining their loyalty to him and asking him to search his records for the decree of Cyrus allowing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
If the Temple is a focal point and primary symbol of the Covenant of God, the zeal to rebuild it is the zeal to be God's Covenant People. The objective is not simply to rebuild an object of national pride or a religious building where they can do religious things. The intention is to return to their calling to be the people of God. It is this intention that God wants to keep alive in their collective heart. It was their departure from the Covenant that brought the wrath of God upon them in 586. It was their dilution of the faith, along with their lack of sincerity that led them into other sins and caused God to allow the Babylonians to conquer them. The Babylonian Captivity was punishment for breaking the Covenant and rebelling against God. Now that they are back in Jerusalem, God wants them to return to the Covenant again. Thus, the Temple, as the focal point of their Covenant keeping, must be rebuilt.
Ez. 6, Mt. 3
Ez. 7, Phil. 3
Ezra is a book of history. Therefore, a look at what has transpired prior to today's reading in chapter 6, will greatly help us understand its message. Chapter 1 records the decree of Cyrus releasing the Jews from captivity in Babylon. In 536 B.C. the first of several groups of Jews leaves Babylon and arrives in Jerusalem. Almost immediately they attempt to rebuild the Temple, which was plundered and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. In chapter 4, adversaries of Judah ask to be allowed to help with the Temple, but are refused. The adversaries are descendants of Israelites who had intermarried with Gentiles and diluted their faith with pagan ideas and worship. On the surface their appeal to help rebuild the Temple appears good, and the rejection of their offer by the Jews (Ez. 4:2) seems cruel and arrogant. But perhaps the Jews understand that watered down, adulterated religion has to be rejected, and to allow its practitioners to help rebuild the Temple is to invite their erroneous faith into it when completed. It was just that kind of religious compromise that brought the judgment of God upon the Jews in the first place, and they have no intention of returning to it at that time.
Rather than repenting of their sin and purging themselves of false religion, the adversaries begin to make trouble for the Jews (4:4-6), even making false accusations to the king that the Jews are preparing to mount a military attack on Persia (4:8-16). Believing the accusation to be true, the Persians send an army to Jerusalem to stop the rebuilding of the Temple by force of arms (4:23-24).
The Jews respond with an appeal to the king. By this time, Cyrus is dead and Darius the Mede rules the empire (5:5-17). Darius searches his records and finds the decree of Cyrus, which is restated in our reading for today, Ezra 6:1-12.
A major point of this passage is the need for truth in religion. The Jews could have welcomed the compromised faith into their midst. Their presence would have made the work easier, the city wealthier, and the congregation larger. Instead, the Jews refused to compromise. Why? The message of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel told them the Babylonian Captivity was the judgment of God for compromising the faith. They did not want to endure such suffering again, so, for a while, they maintained the pure faith. The primary point of this passage is the great, irresistible power of God. God brings His work to completion in His own way and time. He does not need the wealth of people, or great numbers of them to accomplish His will. A small band of faithful believers is much more valuable to Him than great crowds who have compromised the truth. He raises up empires at His pleasure, and casts them down when He wills. Empires are no more of a hindrance to Him than a storm on the sea to our Saviour.
At long last the Temple is completed. God has brought His people back to their homeland, and enabled them to rebuild the Temple. This means the sins which brought His anger and caused their captivity are forgiven, and they are restored to God's favour. This is all accomplished by grace. It is God alone who brought them out of Babylon, and God alone who gave them zeal to build the Temple and persevere in its construction though enemies tried to stop their work. God's wonderful mercy and unstoppable providence are clearly seen in this passage. And if God accomplished His promises to the Jews with such power and faithfulness, we can trust Him to accomplish what He has promised us in Christ. We may meet with opposition, and our faith may be as weak as that of the Jews in this passage, but God will bring His work in us to completion by His own power. He cannot fail.
The people do their work with great joy. This includes not only the rebuilding of the Temple, but also its dedication and services. We may also do our service unto God with joy. Worship, prayer, the services of the Church, and the reading of the Scriptures can be a source of great joy to us. Let them not become burdens we must force ourselves to bear. Let them be meat and drink to our souls, as streams in the desert. "Let us learn to welcome holy ordinances with joy and attend on them with pleasure. Let us serve the Lord with gladness. Whatever we dedicate to God, let it be done with joy" (Matthew Henry)
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. Ezra 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 is 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 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 yearns to see the Jews dedicate themselves to keeping the Covenant of God, and, for this purpose, he is willing to sacrifice a promising career in a place of wealth, for the dangers and uncertainty of an impoverished and backsliding Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is backsliding. It has been 57 years since the Temple was completed, and most of the generation which worked on it have passed away. Their children and grandchildren are sinking back into the paganism that has 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 Jerusalem. It is ironic that the city which should have been the world’s greatest missionary, needs and receives missionaries from Persia.
Ez. 8, Mt. 4:1-16
Ez. 9. Phil. 4
Life has become good for the Jews in Babylon. Freed from their oppression, they have become productive citizens of the Empire, often rising to great heights in social and financial status. Living in Babylon offers many advantages. It is heavily defended, so the probability of conquest is remote. It is wealthy and offers many ways to make a very comfortable living, and it tolerates a relaxed approach to all religions, which appeals to many Jews. It is far removed from the demands and dangers of the frontier type of existence of those in Jerusalem. Yet, Ezra longs to leave it for the Holy City. He longs 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 what they are called to do, serve in the Temple in Jerusalem (8:15). By the grace of God this problem is solved, and 258 priests join the caravan for Jerusalem (8:18-20). The articles and money for the Temple is put into their care, and the caravan travels without military escort to Jerusalem (8:22).
Their entrance into Jerusalem is received with great joy. They and the people record the money and articles brought for the Temple (8:33) and a great day of worship is observed. It is noteworthy that the sacrifices are all given as burnt offerings and sin offerings. They are not eaten by the people, but devoured by the fire of the altar as symbols of faith, confession, and dedication to God.
Ezra finds the spiritual conditions in Jerusalem as bad as those in the pagan peoples around them. In fact, the Jews have joined themselves to the pagans “according to their abominations” (9:1).
As in many times before there is practically no difference between the Jews and the pagans. They act alike. They dress alike. They worship alike. It is no wonder then, that the Jews intermarried with the pagans.
The situation drives Ezra to his knees in prayer. He recalls the blessings and grace of God, and yet, in the short time they have been in Jerusalem they have gone from a dedication to being God’s Covenant people, to being as lost as the Gentile pagans. The closing words of chapter 9 express the essence of Israel’s sin and Ezra’s prayer: “behold, we are before Thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before Thee because of this.”
Nehemiah 1, Mt. 4:17-25
Neh. 2, Colossians 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 phony; 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 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).
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.
Neh, 4:1-12, Mt. 5:1-20
Neh 4:13-23 , Col. 2
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.
Neh. 5, Mt. 5:21-48
Neh 6, Col. 3
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 is 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.
Neh. 8, Mt. 6:1-15
Neh. 9, Col. 4
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 is 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, pray, 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 Scriptures, not memory, which guides them.
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.
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). 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, they 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.
Neh. 10. Mt. 6:16-34
Neh. 13:1-14, 1 Thessalonians 1
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.
Neh. 13:15-31, Mt. 7
Esther 1, 1 Thess. 2
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.
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 east 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 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).
Esther 2, Mt. 8:1-17
Esther 3, 1 Thess. 3
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.
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.
Esther 4, Mt. 8:18-34
Esther 5, 1 Thess. 4
A fearful time of mourning has overcome the Jews. In their distress they forsake their food for fasting, and give up their beds to lie in sack cloth and ashes. The reason for their sorrow is the decree of the king, passed at the urging of Haman, and sent into all the provinces of Persia. The decree orders to destroy, kill, and cause to perish, all Jews, “both young and old, little children and women.” (3:13). Every Jew is to die. All of their property is to be confiscated. Even the date of this mass execution is set, “the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.”
We often read Scripture too quickly and without involvement. The more familiar we are with a passage, the more likely we are to read its words, yet be unmoved by the needs, suffering, or faith it expresses. But let the decree of Ahasureus sink into your being for a moment. Understand that it orders the execution of every single Jew in the empire, including those in Israel. Understand this requires gathering the Jews into concentration camps, where, in one day, they will all be killed. Imagine the fear and the suffering; the blood, screaming children, and weeping mothers.
Understand also, that had these Jews returned to Jerusalem when they had the chance, they would not be facing this tragedy. They would be safe in Judea. They would be the strongest military force in the area. And they would be allies of the king of Persia, not his enemies. Think, for a moment, about those who did return to Jerusalem. Think of those who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, who rebuilt the temple, and faced the dangers and hardships of life in Israel. What would it have meant to them to have the help and the presence of those who stayed behind in Babylon? But those who stayed behind chose to remain where life is easier and more peaceful. They had learned to love their new homes and lands instead of Jerusalem. Their loyalties lay with their new country, not with Israel; until now. Now they find it not a land of rest and peace, but a land of sorrow, suffering, and death. If only they had returned to Jerusalem when they had the chance. The Reverend Matthew Henry wrote a telling comment on this passage: “Those who for want of confidence in God, and affection to their own land, had staid in the land of their captivity, when Cyrus had given them liberty to be gone, now perhaps repented of their folly, and wished, when it was too late, that they had complied with the call of God.” Many “Christians” today knowingly live in opposition to the clear teaching of Scripture. Let us pray that they may repent of their folly, rather than wish, when it is too late, that they had complied with the call of God.
Esther has not been living as a Jew. She has been assimilated into the Persian culture, and enjoy ing her status as a queen. Unlike Vashti, who did not go to the king’s pagan festival, Esther must be fully participating in them, for she retains her queenly position.
Mordecai has openly declared himself a Jew, and urges Esther to do the same. Chapter 4 contains what are probably the two best known verses in the book of Esther. Verse 14 is Mordecai's plea for Esther to intercede for the Jews: “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Verse 16 is Esther’s decision to act on behalf of the Jews: “if I perish, I perish.”
Many commentators have suggested that merely to go to the inner court of the kings house, without invitation, is to risk execution. Yet Esther does so boldly. Thankfully she is received by the king, who accepts her invitation, with Haman, to a banquet she will prepare for them on the following evening.
The king knows she wants something, and encourages to voice her petition. She wisely does not, but does invite the king to another banquet on the next evening.
Meanwhile, Haman is boasting to his friends and wife, that he is so favoured by the king and Queen, that he was invited to the first banquet and it is also invited to a second. He alone has been given this honour. Yet his anger against Mordecai continues to burn. He orders a gallows built specifically for the purpose of hanging Mordecai.
Esther 6, Mt. 9:1-17
Esther 7, 1 Thess. 5
Unable to sleep, the king orders the book of the records of the chronicles brought and read to him. This is not one of the Biblical books of Chronicles. It is a book of recent Persian history and events in which he learns of Mordecai’s action which saved the king’s life. He determines to honour Mordecai.
The next morning, Haman comes to the king to seek permission to hang Mordecai on the gallows he has built. When the king asks, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” Haman thinks the king intends to honour him. Verses 7-9 describe what Haman wants the king to do for him. But the king is not talking about Haman; he is talking about Mordecai, the man Haman wants to hang. “Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as thou hast said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew, that sitteth at the kings gate.” Haman must be shocked and angry, yet he has no choice but to do as the king commands. Later that day he complains to his friends but his complaining is interrupted by the call to come to Esther’s banquet.
At the banquet Esther pours out her heart to the king. She tells him that her people are to be slain until they all perish, and begs, “let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request.”
Hearing this, the king is angry. He demands to know who “durst in his heart to presume to do so?” The queen responds, “The adversary and enemy is this wicked Haman.” The fire of hate and conceit that burned in Haman’s heart, now turns to fear as cold as ice. The king leaves the palace, and returns to find Haman begging Esther for his life. The king, already angry, thinks Haman is trying to “force the queen.” Within a few minutes, Haman stands on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. On that very gallows, “they hanged Haman.”
Again and we see the mighty hand of God protecting His people and working His will in human history. It is not chance or fate that saves the Jews. It is not even the courage of Esther or Mordecai, great as their courage is. It is the hand of God working in grace to accomplish His will on earth.
Esther 8, Mt. 9:18-38
Esther 9:1-19, 2 Thess. 1
The danger to the Jewish people does not end with the death of Haman. He and his people have aroused animosity against the Jews throughout the Persian Empire. No doubt the Jews themselves cause part of the animosity. They have continuing complex of believing their calling to know and serve the Living and True God is due to their moral and spiritual superiority to other people, whom they call “unclean.” Rather than having compassion on the Gentiles, they are conceited, and even hateful towards them. This is odd, because, at the same time, many, perhaps even most of the Jews are happily adopting Gentile ideas and life-styles. Most of their animosity toward Gentiles, then, is due to ethnic conceit, not fidelity to God.
If they were faithful to God, they would still engender animosity from the Gentiles, because they would live very different lives. They would not participate in pagan festivals, eat their foods, intermarry with them, or even socialise with them on a large scale. They would live separate and secluded lives in their own towns or neighbourhoods. If they were really faithful to God, they would leave their Persian homes and return to the land God gave them and in which He called them to dwell and worship Him. So, while many Jews have become Persians in every detail, they still feel superior to Persians. Others, like Mordecai, refuse to bow to men like Haman or acknowledge the Persian idols. This combination engenders a strong dislike of the Jews, and thousands of people are determined to fulfil Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jewish people.
It must be remembered that a Persian king’s decrees could not be reversed. Thus, when Ahasureus takes Haman’s advice, and orders the Jews to be annihilated on a certain day, he is powerless to annul that decree. So he issues another decree which allows the Jews to resist the annihilation efforts by force. The vast majority of people in the Empire, knowing the king’s regrets over the first decree, and that he desires to preserve the Jewish people, make no effort to harm the Jews. But thousands of people in many places do. So when the day arrives, the Persian Empire is thrown into a bloody war of ethnic cleansing. We do not know how many Jews suffered or died in this war, but the book of Esther records seventy-five thousand of their enemies killed throughout the Empire, plus 500 in the capitol city. The sons of Haman are also executed by hanging. This preserves the Jewish people as an ethnic identity, leaving hope that they will return to their true identity soon.
Esther 9:20-32, 10:1-3, Mt. 10
Job 1, 2, Thess. 2
Esther 9:20-32, 10:1-3
A time of feasting and thanksgiving is decreed for all the Jews by Esther and Mordecai, which becomes known as the feast of Purim. It is interesting that the feast originates with people without ecclesiastical authority who live outside of the land of Judah. The Judeans must feel some animosity toward the Jews who remain in Persia rather than joining and helping them in their very difficult situation in Jerusalem and Judea. At the same time, they rejoice that God has preserved their brethren. So the feast is adopted by the Judean people, and becomes a standard in the Jewish annual calendar. Thus the book of Esther ends with the Jewish people safe and rejoicing in the providence of God.
Job 2, Mt. 11
Job 3, 2 Thess. 3
Job is thought to be a very ancient book. The events it describes do not occur in Israel, and possibly happen long before the time of Abraham. They are so tragic and so puzzling that they have been recorded and preserved in poetry and in a format that is almost like a theatrical play. Job’s situation casts him into deep despair, and causes him to question the very foundations and elemental principles of life. Three questions underlie the entire book. First, if good and bad things happen to all people, why should anyone try to be good? Second, if good and bad things happen to those who try to love and obey God, why should anyone try to love and obey Him? Third, if this is what life is like, why not just die and get out of it? These are not simply topics for philosophical discussion in the safety of the halls of academia. They are the deep, existential questions of the heart of a man caught in sorrows that threaten his views of life, his faith in God, and his desire to live at all. These are life and death, and Heaven and Hell, time and eternity questions asked by a man who, like all of us, exists in the midst of these very real issues, and cannot escape their very real consequences.
Chapter 1 shows Job as a righteous man who lives in obedience to God. Job’s righteousness is not sinless perfection. It is a life lived in faith and love of God instead of in opposition and rebellion against God. It is a life that is lived trusting God to accept and bless him because God is merciful and good. But Job’s faith is shaken when the disasters strike him. The devil, one of the angelic beings, or, sons of God, says Job only loves God because God has protected Job from sorrow (put a protective hedge around Job), and has made him rich and happy. If God takes away Job’s worldly treasures, his faith will die and he will curse God to His face. Will we only trust God in good times? Will we trust Him when everything else is gone? These questions clearly confront us as we read the book of Job.
Chapter 2 finds Job in deep grief yet still holding on to his faith in God. Verse 9 is a statement of faith. It says he will trust God in bad times as much as in good times.
Job’s faith is much weaker now. He is beginning to wish he had never been conceived (1-10). In verse 11 he wishes he had died in the womb, or that his mother had never fed or cared for him after birth. Why didn’t she just let him die? As you read these verses let yourself feel a little of the depth of Job’s grief and confusion. Why is Job saying it is better to be dead than to live under the power of God, who causes such sorrow and suffering?
Job thinks of death as either the end of existence, or as existing in a form and place that is barren of both joy and sorrow. To him it may be an existence in which a person is conscious, but immune to the things of life. It is something like a shadow of life. A shadow resembles a person and moves with a person, but does not feel the pain or care about the questions of life. That is why Job says if he were dead he would be at peace.
Job 4, Mt.12:1-21
Job 5, 1 Timothy 1
Now the friends of Job begin to speak. These friends have often been criticised as unfeeling moralists who thunder on about the wrath of God on a sinful Job. But Eliphaz is actually tender and compassionate at first. His faith, too, is tried by Job’s sorrows, and he wants to know how these things could happen like Job. He begins by asking permission to speak. He has no wish to humiliate Job, or to haughtily pronounce judgment upon what he may perceive as Job’s sins. His desire is to understand and comfort Job.
He gently points out that Job has often comforted others in their suffering. Therefore, Job knows the “answers” to all the theological, moral, and practical issues he is facing. The implication is that if Job was able to help others, he should be able to help himself. He knows both the cause of his troubles, and the way out of them.
Eliphaz makes one dynamic point, which he will repeat many times in the course of the book: “whoever perished being innocent? Or where were the righteous cut off?” He is stating an idea that is still popular today, that the innocent do not suffer. Only the wicked perish, and they perish by the blast of God. They are like lions who kill and devour their prey, but, in the end, it is they who perish.
Verses 12-21 tell of a dream of a visitation by God in which Eliphaz learns of the justice of God. He is so convinced of the reality of this visitation that, on its basis, he essentially accuses Job of sin. A mortal man, Job, is not more just than God or more pure than his Maker. In other words, sinners suffer, the innocent do not. Therefore, Job is guilty of sin, and his suffering is in exact proportion to the degree of his sin.
Eliphaz continues. His point is that Job’s suffering is a gracious correction from God (17). If Job will repent of his sin God will restore his former happiness, and keep him in it all the days of his life. He is absolutely convinced that this is so. Thus, in verse 27 he concludes his remarks, saying, “Lo this, we have searched it, so it is; hear it and know thou it for thy good.” He is saying, Job, I know this to be true. I have received it in a visitation from God, and I have pondered it in my heart often. Listen to it, and believe it, and all will be well with you.
We must be very careful about religious experiences. It is possible to have experiences that we think are given by God, but are not. Eliphaz’s vision was not from God, though he was convinced it was. This brings us to a very important point: Scripture is not judged or interpreted by experiences. Experiences are judged and interpreted by Scripture.
Job 6, Mt. 12:22-50
Job 7, 1 Tim. 2, 3
It is Job’s turn to speak, but he does not confess sin and repent, as Eliphaz expects. Instead he says that, just as an animal only complains when it is not fed or cared for, he is not complaining without reason. And the reason is not that God is making him suffer, though he is innocent of wrong and is suffering unjustly. Furthermore, his suffering is so terrible, and his anger and mistrust of God is now so consuming, he no longer desires to serve God, or even to live. “Oh that I might have my request; and that God would grant me the thing that I long for! Even that it would please God to destroy me; that He would let loose His hand, and cut me off.”
Job continues to express his sorrows. Life has become a burden for him, and God will not release him from it. He is forced “to possess months of vanity,” and “wearisome nights” are appointed to him. Life is empty and meaningless. Nights are spent in mourning and tears rather than peaceful sleep and rest. He is “full of tossings to and fro until the dawning of the day,” He begins to address God, and, in very disrespectful ways, tells Him He is unfair and cruel. If indeed Job has sinned (and he maintains that he has not) God should pardon his transgression and take away his iniquity. Instead, for no reason, God sends unbearable sorrows to him. His only relief can be death, and his soul chooseth it rather than life (vs. 15).
Job’s grief is so terrible he plans to take his own life (vs. 21). He seems to say he will kill himself, and when God looks for him again, to afflict him again, He will not find him because he will be dead. This is deep and gripping sorrow, and Job sees no way out of it. Normally he would cast himself upon the mercies of God. Normally he would trust God to be kind and generous. But it seems God has turned against him. It seems God is capricious, and delights in tormenting him. Therefore, Job has no hope. He does not believe life will ever be anything better for him. He believes God will keep him in this state of torment as long as he lives, so he decides to end his life. He thinks that is his only escape.
Fortunately there is much more to the book of Job. Though it challenges many common ideas about the ways of God and His dealings with humanity, yet it also affirms His grace and kindness. Let Job only continue on, and he will find peace, not only peace with God, but peace in God.
Job 8, Mt. 13:1-30
Job 9, 1 Tim. 4
Bildad has been quietly listening to Job and to Eliphaz. He cannot be untouched by the plight of his friend, yet he is convinced Job is wrong about everything. He says Job’s words are like “strong wind,” they are powerful, but destructive to his faith and his entire life. God does not pervert justice (vs. 3). Evil comes to evil people; good comes to good people. Therefore, Job’s children sinned, and brought God’s wrath upon them, and Job sinned, and brought God’s wrath upon him. If this is not so, according to Bildad, God is unjust and there is no hope for any justice ever. Verse 6 gives the heart of Bildad’s faith; “If thou wert pure and upright; surely now [God] would awake for thee, and make the habitation of thy righteousness prosperous.” He is telling Job God has been sleeping toward him because of his sin, but He will awake for Job if he repents of sin and begins living righteously again. He confidently states that, if Job will do this, God will make him rich and prosperous again.
Bildad’s ideas are still popular today. Most of the TV and radio preachers teach some form of it, promising miracles, health, prosperity, and deliverance from problems to those who have enough faith to trust God for it. Many teach that God will make people rich if they simply give money to their “ministries.” As we will see, the book of Job absolutely refutes these ideas.
Bildad has expressed what Job had always believed (9:1). But now Job has questions. He wants to ask God why He has allowed such sorrow to crush the life and faith out of him. But who can argue with God? God is wise (knowledgeable) in heart, and mighty in strength. No mere human can outwit God or stand against His power. Job acknowledges the power of God in verses 4-10. But, though God is supremely powerful, Job says He is unjust and cruel. He has afflicted Job without cause (17), and He has given the earth to the wicked. These are serious charges. The first accuses God of tormenting Job for pleasure, the way some people take pleasure in causing other people or creatures to suffer. It makes God responsible for all the suffering in the world, as though it comes to us from His hand specifically to cause us pain. The second means God is no rewarder of faith or protector of the good. He allows evil men to take wealth by evil means, and He allows them to control the political, legal, and economic systems for their own gain. In other words, God seems to be on the side of the wicked.
We are beginning to see more of the depth of Job’s inner pain. In addition to the deep grief caused by the death of his children, the faith on which he has built his life has been shattered. The God he loved, and thought loved him, appears to be nothing more than a super-powered criminal. The wicked prosper while the innocent suffer, and God seems to be on the side of the wicked. Thus, there is no hope for justice, no hope for peace, no hope that the world can ever be anything better than a place of violence, greed, and cruelty. This is despair in the deepest meaning of the word, and it drains every ounce of hope and faith out of Job. Generations later, St. Paul will write “If God be for us, who can be against us? To Job, God is against us, therefore, no matter who or what else is for us, we can expect only suffering and sorrow in life.
We face the same despair Job faced if there is no God. With no God, humanity, controlled by fleshly appetites and lusts, will always live by the law of the jungle. The strong will take what they want, and leave the scraps to the rest. The powerful will make the rules for others, but they, themselves, will be immune to them. Without God, there is no ultimate authority of right and wrong, and there is no ultimate judge to whom they will answer. Therefore, kindness and cruelty are morally equivalent, and there is no moral mandate to choose one over the other. If there is no God, man is the only arbiter of what is and is not acceptable. Even if people choose to live in a form of social contract that attempts to produce the most benefit for the most people, disagreements over the definition and means of accomplishing it will divide and provoke the people. This is why man’s utopian attempts have been disasters of blood, and have only replaced one group of oppressors with another. Even our best efforts have produced imperfect results. If man is our only hope, then truly we have no hope.
Job 10, Mt. 13:31-58
Job 11, 1 Tim. 5
The heart of chapter 10 is Job’s desperate cry in verse 15, “I am full of confusion.” Job has lost his faith, and doesn’t know what to believe anymore. This does not mean he doesn’t believe in God. He still believes in the God of Adam and Eve, and Seth and Enoch and Noah. But he no longer believes in the goodness and mercy of God. He believes God is cruel, and has created him merely for the purpose of oppressing him (vs. 3). Though Job maintains that God knows he has not been wicked (vs. 7), yet He continues to afflict Job (vs. 7-17). Is this why God made Job? Is this the kind of being God is? Is this the One Job has tried to love and obey all these years? If this is the kind of being God is, Job is weary of life (vs. 1), He wishes he had not been conceived, or that he had died at birth and been carried from the womb to the grave (vs.19).
A third friend speaks. His name is Zophar, and, like the others, he admonishes Job and maintains that Job’s sorrows are the punishment for sin. In fact, he wants Job to know he deserves more punishment than he is getting (vs. 6). “God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.”
We in the New Testement Church know this is true. We know “all have sinned,” and “the wages of sin is death.” But Job has been taught that those who know God, abstain from gross wickedness, and generally live by the moral law of God, will be blessed with an abundance of the world’s material goods, and will live happy and prosperous lives. Zophar affirms this idea. He believes it with all his heart. He is sure Job has sinned, and that his current anger and questioning of God is increasing Job’s sin and provoking God to increase Job’s suffering.
We still have people like Zophar today. They tell us that if we were only as righteous as they, or had as much faith as they, or believed God for our miracles, or gave “seed money” to their ministries we, too, would be prosperous and trouble free, like them. Usually, of course, we easily find that their lives are not as holy or trouble free as they would like us to believe.
Job 12, Mt. 14:1-21
Job 13, 1 Tim. 6
Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have confidently asserted their beliefs to Job. They have assured him that suffering only comes to those who sin, therefore, Job is guilty of a terrible sin, for which he must repent and return to Godliness. These men are very sincere in their beliefs, and in their compassion for Job. But Job is tired of their assertions. They are not the ones suffering, nor have they ever experienced anything like Job is experiencing. When he begins to speak again in chapter 12, his words are sarcastic and cutting. “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” Job’s words would normally mean they are God’s chosen messengers and their combined store of wisdom is so great that it is as though wisdom will die when they die. Of course the sarcastic tone of Job’s words mean just the opposite. Job means they are not God’s messengers, nor are they wise in the ways of God. They are, in fact, fools.
Job says he understands their views as well as they do, but Job thinks their ideas mock him. He believes, when he calls upon God, God laughs him to scorn. It is the robbers who prosper, and they who provoke God who are secure. while Job, a righteous man, suffers severely.
Verses 7-25 acknowledge the absolute power of God, but accuse Him of using His power unjustly. He sends droughts and flood (15). He takes away the wisdom of counsellors and judges (17). He crushes princes and mighty men and nations, and he raises up and/or destroys nations merely for His own pleasure (18-21). He makes rulers of nations (people with power to help or to harm the people of that nation) to wander in the wilderness, meaning to not know how to lead or how to help their nations. He causes them to grope in darkness, not knowing what to do, or seeing the consequences their policies will cause. Job means their leadership is confused and their policies are foolish, like a man trying to find his way in a strange place and in total darkness, or in drunkenness.
Job may be applying these words to his friends, also. He may be saying they are trying to lead him to God, but they are as much in the dark as he.
Job expresses his anger even more bluntly now. He says he has as much knowledge of the things of God as they. But they are no help. They are forgers of lies (4). In other words, all that they say and believe is lies. Their attempts to help are like medicines from an incompetent physician. They do not help. Job is using their own arguments against them, for, if what they say is true, their false accusations of sin will bring God’s wrath on them. He will reprove them and make His dread come upon them (10,11).
Verse 14 sees a shift in Job’s attitude. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him,” he says in verse 15. Is this a sign that even all the sorrow he has experienced has not fully crushed his faith in God? Or is Job trying to manipulate God, as people often do when trouble strikes? He is probably trying to be truthful, for he immediately says he will maintain his ways before God, meaning he will stand by his word that he has not sinned, and that he will trust God to know this. He will believe God will be his salvation. Though his soul is filled with despair and anger, and he even considers taking his own life, there is still a spark of hope in Job that God may yet help him.
If Job has sinned, let God take away his transgressions (23). Let Him not break a shaking leaf or harm the stubble of grass. God has treated Job like an enemy, written bitter things against him, and put his feet in stocks like a criminal. Will God yet have mercy? Is there yet any meaning or hope in life?
Job 14, Mt. 14:22-36
Job 15, 2 Tim. 1
Verses 1 and 2 ask an important question that still troubles people today. We are born into a world that is full of trouble and sorrow, why does God add to them by judging us and holding us accountable for our failures, for not knowing Him, or even for open sin? Why doesn’t God just let us alone? Or, better yet, why doesn’t He help us rather than condemn us? Why doesn’t He hold us in love, rather than blast us with anger?
Job admits that we, and he, are imperfect and incapable of making ourselves righteous. We cannot bring a clean thing out of an unclean thing, meaning, us (4). But Job insists God, who obviously knows this about us, should be forgiving and kind to us. Furthermore, our time is short on earth, and we have no ability to add years to our lives. Why does God fill our short lives with trouble and sorrow? A tree can be cut down, yet still live and send forth new branches, but a man cut down is dead forever. Why does God torment us, then cut us down?
Verse 9 begins some of Job’s most profound and moving thoughts. Troubled as he is, he thinks he could bear his afflictions if he only had some hope that, one day, God would reach down to him in mercy and do good to him again. He wishes he could die and lie in his grave until whatever is causing God to afflict him passes. Maybe then God could turn to him in mercy again, and raise him up, and restore him to His favour. Job says, if that would happen he would wait patiently for that change (14). If that would happen, and God would call him, he would answer, even if he were in his grave (15).
Job’s words remind us of the Apostle Paul, who also suffered much. He was often without shelter from the heat and cold and sun and snow. He often had no food for days at a time. He suffered constant and severe pain due to the stonings and beatings he endured for the sake of Christ. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27: “five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned. Thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst and fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” But Paul said he could endure them because he believed God was going to take him to be with Him in indescribable joy forever. Thus he wrote in in Romans 8:18; “I reckon that the sufferings of this world are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”
Job does not know about Heaven. He has no real hope that God will raise him from the grave, or do good to him again in this life. The mountains are large and strong, but even they fall and come to nought (18). Stones are hard and strong, but water can wear them away to nothing (19). In the same way God has destroyed Job’s faith. Once it was a mountain. Once it was a rock. But God has moved it and worn it away, and now it is gone. Job thinks the idea that God may do good for him again is a vain hope, and the chapter ends with Job as deep in despair and anger at God as ever.
Eliphaz answers Job again. He is shocked at Job’s unbelief and blasphemy. He is angry that Job asserts himself over the wisdom of men much older than himself. But he is more angry at Job’s hostility toward God, for Job turns his spirit against God and lets blasphemous words out of his mouth (13). Therefore, rather than pitying and comforting Job, he blasts him with angry and hurtful words. The same often happens today, doesn’t it?
Now Eliphaz utters some of the most profound words in the entire book of Job. He says, in verse 14, “What is man, that he should be clean? And he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” Here, long before the prophets, before Moses, or even Abraham, Eliphaz states a foundational Biblical truth. No man is clean before God. No man is righteous before God. The sun and moon and stars, which Eliphaz calls “the heavens” are not even clean in God's sight. “How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?”
How this sounds like the words of the prophet, “there is none righteous no not one.” How it sounds like the words of the Apostle, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” How profound and insightful these words are from this ancient man of God. Everyone deserves to suffer, he teaches. It is only by God's grace that the seemingly righteous are spared, while the openly wicked reap the wrath of God. But, profound as his words may be, Eliphaz cannot convince himself that Job is not guilty of horrible and wicked sin, for which he is being punished by God.
Job 16, Mt. 15:1-20
Job 17, 2 Tim. 2
The heart of this chapter is found in verse 21, “Oh that one might plead for a man with God, as a man pleadeth for his neighbor.” Job wishes he had someone to plead his case before God. He wishes for an intercessor, a helper, a Saviour.
By now we are seeing more and more clearly that the needs and questions expressed in Job are answered in Christ. “If a man die , shall he live again?” Is God gracious and good, or is He capricious and cruel? Does God forgive sin? Is life worth living? Is there an intercessor who will plead our case before God? Is there any help for those enduring the trials of life? Is God near to His people, or is He insulated and distant from them? Does God really care about sin? Is there really any justice in this world? Is God Himself really just? Does living a Godly life guarantee peace and prosperity? Can certain acts of faith manipulate God into giving peace and prosperity? All of these things are answered in Christ. The deepest needs of the human heart and soul are answered in Christ. Our most troublesome questions are answered in Christ. In Him, our sorrows have meaning, and in Him the love and peace of God is secured for us forever. One of the most troubling questions of life is, if God is good, why does He allow suffering? This, too is raised in Job, and answered in Christ.
Job’s spirit is so troubled he is experiencing trouble breathing, His “friends” are like mockers rather than helpers. They provoke rather than comfort (1-3). His suffering has become the subject of local gossip, a “byword” (6). The righteous are astonished because of him. But among his “friends” there is no wise man, despite their claims to know the ways of God (10).
He concludes there is no help for him in this life. His only comfort, or, hope, is the grave (13-15) which will deliver him from his suffering and gives the consolation that his “friends” and those who gossip about him will also go down to the pit.
Job 18, Mt. 15:21-39
Job 19, 2 Tim. 3
Bildad responds to Job’s remarks with anger. We can see the tone of the conversation changing. What began as a genuine attempt to comfort and support Job, turned into a theological debate and has now become an angry argument. Bildad wants Job to stop talking and listen to reason, his reason. “How long will it be ere ye make an end of words? Mark [pay attention], and afterward we will speak” (2). Bildad is now even more convinced that Job’s suffering is God’s retribution for terrible and habitual sin. He is angry at Job for not believing this and confessing his sin. He is even more angry at Job for not receiving the counsel of his friends. He accuses Job of considering the friends as having no more understanding of God than the beasts, and rather than friends, they are counted as vile by Job (3). Verse 4-21 are Bildad’s angry defence of his conviction that God gives peace and prosperity to the good, and sorrow and suffering to the wicked.
Job’s response is equally angry. He says his friends “vex” his soul and break him in pieces (2). He continues to maintain his lack of great sin, and to accuse God of mistreating him. The anger and intensity of the conversation shows that the issues they discuss are not mere philosophical discourses, they are the issues of life and its meaning. They are the issues of God and His being. They ultimately reduce to one question: given the power and nature of God, and given the reality of suffering, is life worth living?
Finally Job begs his friends to pity, rather than criticise him (21-24), and asserts a deep faith that he will see God in peace and acceptance again through One who will defend him and justify him before God. He again speaks of a hope that this will happen even if Job dies before the Redeemer comes. Though worms destroy his body, yet in his flesh will he see God (25&26). Surely this Redeemer is none other than Christ our Lord who died for our sins and “ever liveth to make intercession.”
July 25, St. James the Apostle
Acts 11:27- 12: , Mt. 16
Mt. 20:20-, 2 Tim. 4
Collect for the Day,
“Grant, O merciful God, that as thine holy Apostle, Saint James, leaving his father and all that he had, without delay was obedient unto the calling of Thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed Him; so we, forsaking all worldly and carnal affections, may be evermore ready to follow Thy Holy Commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
James was one of three disciples who were closest to Christ during His earthly ministry. He was known as a man of great wisdom and faith, and he was diligent about seeing that the doctrine and practice of the the Church conformed to that given to the Apostles from Christ. The Collect refers to his leaving a lucrative fishing business to follow Christ. But James would soon give much more in the service of Christ. The murder of Stephen in Jerusalem began an intense persecution of the Church by the same Jewish religious leaders who had convinced Pilate to crucify Christ. Most Christians rapidly left Jerusalem at this time, but the Apostles remained in the city, including James.
James was one of the most influential Apostles. This made him particularly conspicuous to the Jewish opposition, and an obvious target of their attacks. In or around the year 44 A.D, his enemies succeeded in having him arrested and executed. He was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom for his Saviour.
Job 20, Mt. 17
Job 21, Titus 1
Zophar feels compelled to speak because he believes he speaks the truth (“my thoughts cause me to answer”) and because Job thinks he has checked (refuted) the cherished beliefs of the three friends. Zophar believes he must show that Job, not the friends is the one in error. He must check Job.
Here again we read wonderfully wise words. Zophar may be wrong about Job, but his words about the final state of the wicked are wise and true. His thoughts are concisely expressed in verse 5, “the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment.” The rest of the chapter can be understood as an expansion and clarification of these words.
Zophar does not dispute Job’s statements about the prosperity and worldly ease enjoyed by wicked people. He does insist that they will know the wrath of God. Those who have gained wealth by immoral means will be forced to vomit them up again (15). The wrath of God will rain upon him (23). “The increase of his house shall depart, and his goods shall flow away in the day of [God’s] wrath” (28). Zophar’s error is his belief that the punishment of the wicked always happens in this life. Like Job, Zophar knows little or nothing of Heaven and Hell. Therefore, in his view, God must punish the wicked in this life, or Job’s accusations against God are true. So Zophar has to speak and has to defend his beliefs, thinking he is defending God.
It is worth noting that the wickedness to which Zophar refers is primarily the social and economic abuse of the poor (19). In Job’s time the economy was driven by agriculture. It still is today, though most people don’t understand that. By various means, certain people were able to gain ownership or control of vast tracts of land. They usually considered the people on the land to be their property also. In a later era we would call this “feudalism.” The landowner would be called the gentry, the people would be called peasants. The system is not as highly developed in Job’s time, but a form of it exists, and through it, the land holders stand together to keep the peasants working for them. Of course, the land owners take part of the crops and other products as tribute, taxes, or rent. Most charge exorbitant rates that keep the peasants in perpetual poverty while the land owners live in luxury. The same thing could happen in trade, mining, manufacturing, or any other form of business, and it still happens today. Zophar does not condemn legitimate business or the wealth it creates. He does not say all people should have an equal share of the economy. He says those who abuse the poor steal their legitimate share from them. God sees this theft, and will take the thieves’ ill gotten gains from them.
Job is one of the land owners, and Zophar is accusing Job of abusing the poor who work for him. All three of Job’s friends believe this is Job’s terrible sin, and that his suffering is God making Job vomit up again the riches he has gotten by abusing the poor.
Job denies abusing the poor. But, he says, those who do, and whose families have done so for generations, continue to prosper. They grow richer, not poorer. Their houses are safe from fear, their livestock produce great herds, and they spend their days in ease until the moment they go down to the grave. So, the evidence that God’s wrath is poured out on the wicked in this life does not exist. Instead, the evidence seems to indicate that God favours the wicked, even when they intentionally spurn God. “Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways. What is the Almighty that we should serve him? And what profit should we have if we pray unto him?” (14 & 15).
In a sense, this is exactly what Job is asking, along with billions of others down through history. What good is there in serving God? What profit is there in doing good? What penalty is paid for doing evil? As far as they can see, there is no reward for the good and no penalty for the wicked. Therefore, why not pursue wealth and pleasure? Why not take everything you can get, by any means possible, and enjoy it while you can? For it seems God does not care, and the good things of life go to the wicked, not the good.
To Job, this is especially true, since he thinks death is either the end of a person’s existence, or a descent into a shadowy existence where wealth does not exist and pleasure is unknown.
Job 22, Mt. 18:1-20
Job 23, Titus 2&3
Eliphaz again takes the conversation. This time his speech is sharp. He both accuses Job of terrible sin, and names the sin.
The first 4 verses speak of the impossibility of any man being “profitable” to God. Here Eliphaz speaks truth. It does not increase God’s completeness or contentment when people do good. God is eternally complete and content. Nothing people can do can add to or take away from Him. He is happy in His own fellowship. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost do not need the love or fellowship of people. Thus far, Eliphaz has spoken the truth.
Even verse 5 is true. Job’s wickedness is great and his iniquities are infinite. But the same is true of all people, including Eliphaz. So his words are true, but his meaning is false, for he is accusing Job of being a sinner, while he, Eliphaz is righteous.
Verses 6-20 run into deeper falsehood. Here Eliphaz gives the details of what he believes are the sins of Job. The sins are basically two. First, Job has achieved great wealth by cheating and stealing. Second, he has scorned God by thinking God will not see his sins, or, if He sees them, will not punish him for them.
Verses 21-30 give a very good example of very bad theology. Eliphaz declares that God will give Job health and wealth if he repents of his sin. God will give him gold in such abundance it will be like the dust on the ground and stones in the brooks (24). He promises Job the power to lift the downcast out of their sickness and poverty, just by speaking a word over him. This is not true, yet it is a very popular view in various Christian groups today. Prosperity preachers, and those who promise miracles to those who act, or believe, or pray in the correct word, dominate TV and radio Christian broadcasting. But the Bible does not make such promises. Remember, even Christ didn’t get relief from His troubles when He prayed in Gethsemane.
Job still maintains that he is not guilty of the sins Eliphaz accuses him of. He wishes he could leave these friends behind and go straight to the presence of God. There he would order (present) his case, and God would give him relief. But he can’t find God. He goes forward looking for God, but He is not there. He goes backward, but he cannot find God. It is as though God has sent plagues upon him, yet does not hear or listen to his prayer. The only one who can help him is God, and God will not do it. As far as Job can know, this suffering is his lot for the rest of his life. Therefore, Job has no hope. His despair is absolute.
Job 24 & 25, Mt. 18:21-35
Job 26, Philemon
Job continues to insist that God does not always punish the wicked or reward the righteous while they live on earth. The sins described in verses 1-16 virtually cover the entire range of the Ten Commandments, especially as they apply to commerce and community. The horrific effects of sin are shown. Corruption in business does not just make money, it steals the land and livestock of the poor. It leaves people homeless and starving. Verse 8 presents a disturbing picture of the homeless and naked exposed to the elements and clinging to a rock because they have no covering from the cold. There is no shelter in a rock. There is no warmth in a rock. Even if the rock has a small enclave or ledge, or even if it has a cave, the cold stone sucks the heat out of the cold and shivering people. This is the result of evil in commerce that puts profit above all else.
Verses 17-25 tells of the death of the wicked, but death is the lot of all people. Whatever suffering it entails is suffered by the evil and the good. So the righteous have no satisfaction in the death of the wicked, for they, too will die.
This short chapter of only six verses comprises another response from Bildad. He basically repeats the words of Eliphaz in Job15:14-15.
Now it is Job’s turn to speak again, and he delivers an impassioned defence that goes from here through chapter 31. In chapter 26, Job rebukes Bildad, saying his words give no comfort. They do not save the arm that has no strength or give wisdom the one who lacks it. His words are dead things formed under the sea, unseen and unprofitable (1-4). God is powerful (5-14). Nothing can resist His might, but the thunder (way He uses His power in nature and in the lives of people), no one can understand (14). This pitiful statement again expresses the absolute hopelessness of Job. He has heard, and answered, all of Bildad’s arguments before. They did not help then: they do not help now: and Job does not expect them to help, not ever.
Job 27, Mt. 19:1-15
Job 28, Hebrews 1
Job says he will not compromise his integrity. He has not committed the sins his friends accuse him of, and he will not confess to crimes he has not committed. No matter what his friends think, and no matter what God does to him, Job says he still has the satisfaction of knowing he is a good and righteous man. “My righteousness I hold fast” (vs. 6). Verses 8-23 describe the fate of the wicked in fearful terms. It is hard to tell if Job is mocking his friends by parroting their words, or if Job is sincerely voicing his beliefs. It is possible that his views have changed, even though he still believes he has been unfairly treated by God.
It is probable that Job has seen a glimmer of hope. He has spoken of the possibility of knowing God’s mercy in the after life. He has voiced a hope that such a thing might be possible, and that God will give the final rewards and justice to people after death. Job seems to have a revival of this hope here. In verse 19 he says, “The rich man shall lie down.” This particular lying down is in the grave. The rich man, like all others will die, and the riches he has enjoyed will be left behind for the living. “But he shall not be gathered.” Job refers to an ancient belief that the dead are gathered unto their people after death, and that there is some kind of peace about being gathered to them. Thus, Genesis 25:8 says, “Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people.” We read similar words in Genesis 35:29; “Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people.” This is said as a good thing, as a homecoming and a reunion. In Luke 16:22 our Lord says the beggar, Lazarus, “died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.” This probably has the same meaning as the verses about the deaths of Abraham and Isaac. Job was familiar with the idea of an after life in which the good receive good and the evil receive evil. It is very possible that Job is beginning to realise that this must be true. Otherwise, all that he has been saying about the injustice of God is true.
So Job says the wicked lie down in the grave “but are not gathered” as Abraham and Isaac were gathered. Instead, “Terrors take hold on him” (20), and “God shall cast upon him, and spare not” (22), meaning to cast him out of God’s presence and into the terrors of verse 20.
Now Job asserts that man cannot really attain wisdom. He means man, by his own intellect and experience, cannot discover the answers to the most important questions of life. They are beyond man’s capacity to answer. What is the meaning of life? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do the wicked prosper? Is God real? Does God care? People consider themselves wise, and they formulate their own answers to these questions, but their answers are mere hopes and guesses without evidence and without validity. Yet they are willing to risk eternity on their hopes and guesses. To Job, only God possesses the wisdom to answer these questions. “God understandeth the way thereof (of wisdom), and He knoweth the place thereof. For He looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven” (23 &24).
Job 29, Mt. 19:16-30
Job 30, Heb. 2
Job 29 and 30
Chapters 29 and 30 are a lament. 29 recalls Job’s past wealth and honour among his people. Chapter 30 presents his current, bitter circumstances. The faith expressed in chapter 28 has waned, casting Job back into despair. He says God will not reward him after life, not even if Job is somehow able to cry out to Him. “He will not stretch out His hand to the grave, though [the dead] cry in His destruction” (30:24).
Job 31, Mt. 20:1-16
Job 32, Heb. 3
Job continues to maintain his own righteousness, but here he becomes even more forceful about it. We can see the intensity of the conversation growing and the animosity rising among the men. Job names the sins his friends say he has committed. At the end of each list of sins, he announces his willingness to suffer for them if he has committed them. In verses 8, 10, 22, and 40 he calls upon God to pour out terrible sufferings upon himself, in addition to what he has already suffered. He says, if God can show him his sin he will accept His verdict as a crown (36).
We can’t help feeling Job is making a mistake here; that he is letting his anger at his friends , and God, make him say things he shouldn’t, and claim more righteousness for himself than he possesses. It is as though Job has gone from a legitimate statement of innocence of the sins he is accused of, to daring God to strike him if he has even considered committing any sin. If God were to actually act on Job’s words, it would be far more terrible for Job than he can imagine.
Job’s friends have given up on him. They believe he is hardened in sin, and no amount of reasoning or reproof will convince him to repent. He is righteous in his own eyes, and wicked in their eyes, so further discussion is pointless. But Elihu continues. His remarks are not offered in an attempt to help of comfort Job. He wants only to vent his anger and prove that Job is a hardened and wicked man. He is an example of how our faith often become more about us than about God. For, though he speaks of God and the things of God, it is his view and opinion of God that he argues for. We cannot say he does not care about the truth about God, but we can say he is more concerned about justifying his own views than about knowing the truth. The same thing happens today. Some people’s Christianity is much more about them than about God. It is about their feelings and tastes and comforts, for which they contend as angrily as Elihu. Often their arguments are based on experience or results, rather than Scripture. They say, “This makes me feel like I am close to God, therefore it must be good.” “This draws large crowds of people, therefore it must be right.” They seldom do the painstaking Biblical research, or serious historical investigation necessary to rightly divide the word of truth.