Intimidation: Nehemiah 6

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Today’s reading: Nehemiah 4-6.

Nehemiah succeeded in leading the Jews to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, but they encountered all sorts of opposition. The lesson for us today isn’t how to use all these forms of intimidation, but to recognize them so that we can be prepared for them and disarm them. Also, notice how Nehemiah didn’t just pray and leave everything in God’s hands, but whenever possible he added action to his prayers.

The opposition made fun of the Jews (4:2-3). The enemy began by mocking and insulting. It was psychological warfare, and words can hurt and demoralize. Nehemiah responded by calling on God for justice, and by building the wall.

They threatened to harm the Jews (4:11-12). When insults didn’t work, the opposition turned to threats. Nehemiah considered the danger and armed his people, organized them, and set a watch.

They pretended to negotiate (6:2). The offer of “peace talks” was really a trap to lure Nehemiah out in the open where he was an easy target. Nehemiah told them he was too busy to leave and meet them.

They spread lies (6:5-7). The opposition waged a campaign of false information. Rather than falling into despair, Nehemiah prayed that he and his people would be strengthened to complete the work.

They tried to discredit the leader (6:10-13). Weakening the general is an effective strategy. How many times have churches seen their pastor sidelined by Satan? Nehemiah was tempted to give in to fear and take advantage of his privileged position to protect himself, but he recognized the trap and avoided it. He did not lose his influential leadership.

Led by Nehemiah and protected by the LORD, the Jews accomplished the amazing feat of completing the wall around Jerusalem in 52 days. Even more remarkable, they did it despite tremendous opposition. Nehemiah wisely saw through the tactics of the enemy and was able to avoid their threats and traps. How is the enemy trying to trick and trap you today?

Image by pazeamor on Flickr, CC by 2.0

 

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Powerful Prayer: Nehemiah 1

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Today’s reading: Nehemiah 1-3.

Prayer is powerful. Prayer pleases God. Yet prayer is neglected, even in my own life. The book of Nehemiah demonstrates a formula for prayer that moved a king, overcame great opposition, and rebuilt a city.

 Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.” Nehemiah 1: 5-6.

Nehemiah prayed because of the heart-breaking news he heard about the sad state of the rebuilding effort in Jerusalem. It had been 90 years since the first exiles had returned to Jerusalem, 70 years since the temple had been rebuilt, and 10 years since Ezra had arrived and stemmed the slide of the people into assimilation with the pagans around them. Yet the news which Nehemiah heard was that the returned exiles were in great trouble and disgrace and unprotected because there were no walls around the city.

Nehemiah prayed with emotion. He prayed out of a broken heart and had been weeping for his disgraced brothers. Aren’t our prayers most fervent when we pray with the sense of great need and anguish?

Nehemiah prayed after fasting. Fasting is not a prerequisite to prayer, but Jesus himself said that the combination of the two had the power to overcome difficult situations.

His prayer invoked the character of God. Nehemiah’s prayer described and praised God at the same time (great and awesome God). It then made God’s character the foundation of God’s response to the prayer (the one who keeps his covenant of love with those who love and obey him).

His prayer emphasized the relationship with God. Nehemiah emphasized (1) that he was subordinate to God as a servant (2) that the Israelites were God’s people.

His prayer confessed the sins of himself and his people. He was general in his admission of guilt, then specific in admitting that the people had not kept the law of Moses.

His prayer recalled the promises of God. I continue to see overwhelming evidence that this is crucial to answered prayer. Nehemiah reminded God of his promise that if his exiled people returned to him in obedience he would redeem them and bring them back to the Promised Land.

His prayer was specific. He asked that God would give him success with the king, in order that the king would support his mission to rebuild Jerusalem.

After Nehemiah prayed, he still  had to step out in faith to bring his plan before the king. The king could have charged Nehemiah with divided loyalty, but instead he responded with whole-hearted favor. Nehemiah’s method of praying unleashed all of God’s influence and molded the will of the king.

 

Can I date or marry an unbeliever? Ezra 10

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Today’s reading: Ezra 8-10.

There may be no more discouraging situation for young Christians today than the problem of finding a believing mate. The problem could become more difficult in the future as Christians become more of a minority in our expanding  culture of “nones” – those who are affiliated with no church. Desperation may drive some, whether young or older, to seek mates from among the unbelieving. Also, love can be blind, and sometimes the heart binds itself to another before the mind considers whether its beloved believes.

This is not a new problem. The Israelites who returned from exile also had issues with their members marrying unbelievers:

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right!” Ezra 10:10-12

Let me be clear about this command to avoid foreign mates.

  • It isn’t a command to avoid marrying someone of another ethnicity.
  • It isn’t a command to avoid marrying someone of another race.

This is a command to avoid marrying someone who does not worship Jehovah but instead worships a pagan idol or any other false god. In the days of Ezra, the Jews were the only ones who worshiped the LORD. All the other nations and cultures around them worshiped other gods. God had made it clear in his law that they were to avoid marrying unbelievers because the unbelievers would lead them away from God, and the history of Israel had shown that his words were correct.

This is one topic where the New Testament clearly supports the Old Testament view. Paul said, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Paul’s prohibition against being unequally yoked with unbelievers applies to marriage, but also to legally binding business partnerships that are difficult to dissolve. Paul goes on to explain that the result of such partnerships is like trying to mix Jesus and the Devil, that there can be no Christian fellowship in such a relationship, that there can be no agreement on the most important matters of life and eternity, and that it defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit within believers. 

“But I love him/her.” God says that your relationship with him is more important than your relationship with your mate. If that relationship is with an unbelieving mate, it is a defiant act which says to God, “You matter less than my loved one.” It is an act of faithlessness that says to God, “I don’t believe you can provide what I need.”

“But I will change him/her.” The Bible and experience tell us the opposite. The general rule is that the unbeliever weakens the believer’s life of faith. The exception is the case where the believer changes the heart of the unbeliever, though by God’s grace it does sometimes happen. To be clear, I am talking about a man and woman who are already married or deeply emotionally bound to each other. I don’t mean that a believer shouldn’t witness to the lost.

“But I can’t leave him/her.” The New Testament teaching (1 Corinthians 7) does recommend that the unequally yoked couple to stay together if they are already married. Paul says that this is best for the children and does allow for the possibility that the believer may save the lost spouse by their godly example.

People learn this principle at different stages in their lives. Some learn it before marriage. For them, it’s imperative to look for a partner who shares their faith in God. Some learn it after marriage. If that’s your situation, God says you can be a witness that will sometimes win your spouse (more by example than words) and will always set them apart in God’s eyes (1 Corinthians 7:14).

Image by John St John on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

When you face opposition: Ezra 4-7

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Today’s reading: Ezra 4-7.

Bump in the road. Detour. Road block. You can tell we Americans drive a lot. Just look at the way we use highway jargon to describe the difficulties we face off the road. The question is, how do you handle the detours and road blocks that pop up in your life? Do you easily get discouraged and give up? I hope you find the strength to push on through the difficulties and make it to the end of your road. That’s what the Israelites did when they faced opposition in rebuilding the temple.

It wasn’t long after the foundation stones were laid and the altar was rebuilt that the returning exiles faced major conflict:

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. Ezra 4:4-5

Let’s look at a timeline of the rebuilding of the temple.

  • 537 BC – Proclamation of Cyrus allows the exiles to return
  • 535 BC – Foundation of the temple laid
  • 534 BC – Adversaries report to Artaxerxes who stops the temple work
  • 520 BC – Adversaries report to Darius that the temple work has resumed, but Darius permits the work to proceed
  • 515 BC – The Israelites complete and dedicate the temple

Opponents of the Israelites hindered the construction of the second temple for fifteen years. The Israelites could have given up. They must have questioned how one king could rule for them and another against them.  They might have wondered if it was God’s will to keep trying. They could have decided that God didn’t want the temple after all since there was so much opposition. They answered their doubts by recognizing that the opposition was from man, not God. They resumed the construction whenever there was an opportunity and they finished the temple 22 years after their return from exile.

Roadblocks don’t necessarily mean that God opposes our efforts. Sometimes a closed door is being kept closed by an adversary. If you are doing God’s will, keep pushing.

  • God uses difficulties to test us, as he tested the Israelites during their wilderness journey.
  • God uses struggles to strengthen us  “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” Jeremiah 12:5
  • God uses trials to perfect us and teach us patient endurance (James 1). 
  • God uses suffering to teach us to depend on him.  “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Romans 5:3-5

Image by Dan Diffendale on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0.

Don’t despise discipline: Ezra 3

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Today’s reading: Ezra 1-3.

Israel returned to the Promised Land after seventy years in a foreign land. Their release and return was a miracle of God’s grace, but the greater wonder is how they responded when they returned. They had no king, no temple, and little besides what they brought with them. They were descended from ancestors, kings and commoners alike, who had often abandoned the LORD and worshiped idols. Yet, when they returned to their former homeland they acted like the people of God.

  • They assembled as one in Jerusalem to observe the feast of Tabernacles.
  • They gave offerings to rebuild the temple.
  • They rebuilt the altar and offered sacrifices even though they feared the reprisal of neighboring countries.

The greatest evidence of their changed hearts was visible when the foundation stones of the new temple were laid.

With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. Ezra 3:11-13.

The people wept and shouted for joy. Some wept because their hearts were broken over what had been lost. Others were joyful because of the new opportunity to worship God in Jerusalem. In both cases they responded out of devotion to the LORD. This was the same nation that had “mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:16). The difference? They had responsibly accepted the LORD’S discipline.

Five hundred years earlier Solomon had written, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12). The Israelites had accepted the LORD’s reproof and were restored to their position as children of God. They weren’t perfect, but they had been redeemed from their captivity because they submitted to God’s correction.

The book of Hebrews outlines some of the steps in the process of discipline, beginning with the foundation of Solomon’s principle from Proverbs. Chapter 12 goes on to say:

  •  God disciplines those he loves; therefore we can accept his correction as intended for our good.
  • Parents discipline their children, and God’s discipline should reassure us that we are still his own.
  • We should submit to the authority of God’s correction as a child submits to his or her parent’s authority.
  • God’s aim in disciplining us is to make us holy.
  • What seems painful in correction now will bring peace and righteousness later.

Jesus amplified this idea when he said that we are like the grape-vine which God prunes so that it will bear more fruit. Is God pruning you today? Do you feel like you are experiencing the pain of correction? God wants you to accept his discipline. If you will, you will find it leads to freedom from captivity and a fruitful future.

Image by Stefano Lubiana on Flickr, CC by 2.0.

Done, but not through: 2 Chronicles 36

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Today’s reading: 2 Chronicles 35-36.

They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah. 2 Chronicles 36:19-21

Debts come due. In our day there are bankruptcy courts that sometimes allow one to escape his debts, but in God’s court, the debt is always fulfilled. Before you give up hope, remember that under the new covenant of grace God fulfills our debt of sin by the blood of Jesus. Under the old covenant of the Law of Moses, the contract between God and his people required that they pay the debt.

When the writer of Chronicles says that the land enjoyed its sabbath rests, he means that it was satisfied that the sabbath debt had been paid. The law of Moses required that the land be given rest every seven years (Leviticus 25). God instituted the sabbath so that his people would rest and remember. He wanted them to rest from their busyness so that they could remember (1) God’s creation of the world and (2) their deliverance from Egypt. The seventh year rest for the land was just as important in that remembering process as the weekly sabbath. There were some 700 years between the time of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land and their exile into Babylon. God is telling us through the author of Chronicles that there were 70 times covering a period of 490 years in which the Israelites failed to keep the sabbath year.

You’re wondering why that matters. The Bible tells us why: to fulfill the word of the LORD. God is faithful to keep his word (praise him for his faithfulness), and he had promised the people that there would be consequences (curses) if they did not keep the law. He also promised, through Jeremiah, that the seventy year penalty would be enforced.

One more reason why it matters: God was preparing the land for the Israelites’ return. Something strange happened when Babylon conquered Judah. Instead of resettling it with foreigners as conquerors usually do, they left it empty except for some poor Israelites farming the land. God was preparing for his people to come back, but the curse on the land had to be removed before they could return. The debt of the unkept sabbath years had to be paid. Seventy years later the debt was gone, and the stage was set for Israel’s return.

Image by andiwolfe on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Grace and consequences: 2 Chronicles 33

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Today’s reading: 2 Chronicles 32-34 .

Manasseh was a king who did many very evil things. In fact, the Bible says he “did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites.” He also filled Jerusalem from end to end with innocent blood. His wickedness was so great that he was the ultimate, though not the only, cause of Judah’s destruction.

 Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and hand them over to their enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their foes, because they have done evil in my eyes and have provoked me to anger from the day their forefathers came out of Egypt until this day.” 2 Kings 21:12-15

So how did God treat this most wicked of kings who led his country astray into pagan idolatry, who shed vast amounts of innocent blood, who almost single-handedly brought down God’s wrath on Jerusalem? He humbled him, showed him grace, and redeemed him.

So the LORD brought against them the army commanders of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon. In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And when he prayed to him, the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD is God. 2 Chronicles 33:11-13

Like the thief on the cross beside Jesus, God showed mercy to Manasseh when his life seemed at an end. The King was restored to his throne, and the reality of his redemption was proven by his actions. He threw out the idols and restored the altar of the LORD.

But God did not remove the consequences of Manasseh’s sins. He would soon turn Jerusalem upside down and wipe it clean like a serving dish. I have heard sin compared to nails driven into wood. God can remove our nails of sin from the wood, but the holes remain. Sin matters because our lives and the lives of those around us carry the scars of our sins. Jesus carries scars because of our sins. Our sins are so significant that Jesus had to die for them. But, praise God, his death and resurrection redeemed me from my sins, and one day God will make a new heaven and earth that will redeem our world from all the consequences of sin.

Image by theilr on Flickr, CC by-sa 2.0.