Speak up! Esther 10


Today’s reading: Esther 6-10.

It’s Mordecai and not Esther who receives all the praise as the book of Esther closes. Maybe that’s not as strange as it seems, for Mordecai and Esther were both instrumental in God’s plan to save the Jews from destruction. Mordecai was Esther’s senior, her guardian, and he guided her to take a stand for the Jews. Mordecai also ended up, like Joseph in Egypt, second in command in Persia.

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. Esther 10:3

Mordecai was held in high esteem, not because of his position, but because he did whatever he could to advance the cause of his people. In particular, the Bible praises him for speaking up for the welfare of the Jews.

The Bible encourages us to speak up for those who are in trouble:

  • Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Proverbs 31:8
  • Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:9

We are to speak out when we are a witness:

  • If you are called to testify about something you have seen or that you know about, it is sinful to refuse to testify, and you will be punished for your sin. Leviticus 5:1

We are to speak out and tell others of our hope in God:

  • But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 1 Peter 3:15
  • Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Psalm 105:1

We should speak out against sin:

  • As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 1 Timothy 5:20
  • Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 2 Timothy 4:2

Sometimes we keep silent when we should speak out, wanting to avoid conflict or being fearful of drawing attention to ourselves. Mordecai was praised for speaking out for those who were in trouble. Let us be willing to take the risk and speak out in when our words will make a difference.

Image by Howard Lake on Flickr, CC by-sa 2.0

Secret agents: Esther 1-5


Today’s reading: Esther 1-5.

Much is made of the absence of God’s name in the book of Esther. He is the secret agent working behind the scenes, through his providence, to provide everything that is needed to save the Jews from destruction.

  • He creates a vacancy in the position of queen for King Xerxes.
  • Esther, a Jew, wins that title.
  • Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, finds a place in the king’s court and also is able to save the king from an assassination attempt.
  • When Haman, offended by Mordecai, schemes to kill all the Jews, he uses the casting of lots to set the date. By providence the date is set for almost a year later, giving time for action to save the Jews.
  • Esther and Mordecai are positioned at high levels in the government to be able to intervene on behalf of their kinsmen.

And that’s only the first half of the story!

The greater secret in the story, besides the invisible action of God, is the hidden faith of Esther and Mordecai. They are not open about their faith as the story begins. Rather than criticize them for hiding their devotion to God, let’s accept them as they are. Many of us have been, and may still be, in the same position. We believe, but don’t let others know about it. Maybe we are afraid of speaking out, or embarrassed, or fearful of persecution. The world is full of secret disciples, and the encouraging message of Esther is that God uses even them to accomplish his will.

Esther and Mordecai’s secret discipleship doesn’t remain hidden. Haman’s threat forces a crisis in which Esther must decide whether to act on behalf of her people, at the risk of her own life, or try to remain a secret Jew. In faith she puts her trust in God, surrendering completely to his will, and chooses to reveal her secret.

“I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” Esther 4:16

Perhaps this is the greatest accomplishment of God’s providence in the whole story – maneuvering Esther to the place where she was willing to take a public stand for God.

The wonderful destruction of Pharaoh and his armies at the Red Sea was a burst of light which startled the midnight of the world by giving proof to mankind that the Lord lived and could accomplish His purposes by suspending the laws of nature, and working miracles! The marvelous drama enacted at Shushan, the capital of Persia, was intended to be another manifestation of the being and glory of God, working not as formerly, by a miracle, but in the usual methods of His providence, and yet accomplishing all His designs. It has been well said that the Book of Esther is a record of wonders without a miracle, and therefore, though equally revealing the glory of the Lord, it sets it forth in another fashion from that which is displayed in the overthrow of Pharaoh by miraculous power. – Charles Spurgeon

Image by AJ Cann on Flickr, CC by-sa 2.0

Making room for the enemy: Nehemiah 13


Today’s reading: Nehemiah 12-13.

Tobiah was an enemy. Let’s be clear about that. He wrote the book on intimidation, hounding Nehemiah and the Israelites at every step of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. Yet here he is, not only inside the walls of Jerusalem, but living in the temple itself.

Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests. Nehemiah 13:4-5

The high priest provided a room for Tobiah. Nehemiah had been back in Persia serving the king, but when he returned about twelve years later, this is the terrible situation he discovered. He wasted no time in kicking Tobiah out. The question is, how did things get so bad? The clues are in the text.

There were forbidden ties. Eliashib was “closely associated” with Tobiah. To be specific, Tobiah, though a pagan, had married the daughter of a priest, and his son had married the daughter of another priest. Very likely Eliashib was a relative of these priests.

There was a failure of devotion. The room should have been used for storing the offerings. The offerings had stopped, though whether before or after Tobiah’s arrival isn’t clear. We know they had stopped because Nehemiah took action to restore them.

There was no worship of God. This is implied, not stated, but if the temple was being used as intended for worship it is hard to imagine a forbidden person being housed there, regularly, as if it were an apartment and not a holy place.

And so it goes with our failures that allow the enemy to take up residence in our life.

  • We fail to worship.  We don’t elevate God above all else in terms of our time, energy, and money. We don’t praise him regularly. We don’t gather with other believers. The vacuum that we leave makes an easy place for the enemy to enter.
  • We don’t obey God, either in giving or in other areas. This creates a need for discipline that may force God to send us out of fellowship with him. We become a target for the enemy.
  • We make associations with the enemy that trap us. We may idolize work or money. It could be we don’t conquer a sin such as selfishness or greed. It might be a hurtful habit such as TV or pornography. We become chained to the enemy.

Nehemiah showed that we don’t have to stay chained. Take away the enemy’s key. Start worshiping again. Start obeying. Clean house, starting with that room you never clean, the one where you-know-who lives.

Emptiness and idleness of mind is a very dangerous condition; Satan never sees a vacant heart without resolving to fill it with the treasures of mischief. When the measure is full of wheat, there is no room for it; when the soul is fully occupied with Jesus, the enemy may look in vain for an entrance; but a heart usually thoughtless, indevout, and inactive, is an inn upon the devil’s highway, and shall be thronged with evil guests. – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Martinak 15 on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Should I tithe? Nehemiah 10



Today’s reading: Nehemiah 10-11.

By and large, today’s Christians don’t tithe. Should they? The numbers who give may vary from church to church, but it reminds me of the Pareto principle in which 20 percent of the cases produce 80 percent of the outcome. In other words, 20 percent of the members might give 80 percent of the total offerings. Many give nothing at all or only a pittance. Only a small percentage give ten percent of their income. Among Southern Baptists, members give about three percent of their income on average. So again, should they give more? How much more?

At this point the debate generally breaks down into two camps.

  • The tithe was only binding on the ancient Jews living under the Law of Moses. Each individual should give now as guided by the Holy Spirit.
  • Tithing is a principle, like those of the Ten Commandments, that continues to define our giving even under the new covenant of grace.

These are not the only two ways to frame this argument, but do you find yourself drawn to one more than the other? Which one?

After the returned exiles heard Ezra read the law, they renewed their covenant with Jehovah to obey it.

“Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our [ grain] offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work.” Nehemiah 10:37

They were continuing a long Old Testament tradition of emphasizing the tithe. The tithe stretches from Genesis (where Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe) to Malachi (when God tells the Jews they are robbing him by not giving the tithe). In between the Law of Moses set down the tithe as the method that the Israelites would use to support the Levites and priests. But this tithe was not the only offering the law required. There was an additional tithe taken every third year for local needs, there was a periodic tithe for supporting the Jewish festivals, and there were many required and voluntary offerings for sacrifices at the temple. Jesus even discussed the tithe with the Jews of his day. He told them they were good at keeping the tithe (as he said they should) but very poor at observing the more important matters of justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23).

Then the New Testament goes silent on tithing. In fact, Paul repeatedly teaches that the laws and ordinances that bound the Jews have been replaced by God’s grace extended to us through faith in Jesus’ death on the cross. Tithing is not part of the new covenant between God and Jesus’ disciples any more than circumcision or temple sacrifices.

But with the tithe gone, two important truths emerge:

  • The tithe could mislead one into believing he or she only owed God a certain amount and the rest could be used as one pleased.
  • While in fact everything we have belongs to God and is ours only in stewardship under his direction.

Jesus, always advancing radical devotion to his father, commended the poor woman who gave everything she had. He told the rich young man, obsessed with his wealth, to give up everything in order to follow Jesus. His parable of the talents taught us that we are stewards who should be multiplying what we are given, not for ourselves, but for our master. I think Jesus would say to those who insist on the tithe today, “Is your devotion so limited?” But to those who have done away with the tithe he might say, “What standard will you now use to show me that you believe everything you possess belongs to God?”

Perhaps the tithe can be a beginning way to acknowledge God as the owner of all things, but it is only a beginning and not an ending. ― Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World

..tithing isn’t something I do to clear my conscience so I can do whatever I want with the 90 percent–it also belongs to God! I must seek his direction and permission for whatever I do with the full amount. I may discover that God has different ideas than I do. ― Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity

Image by More Good Foundation on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

The power of the Word: Nehemiah 8


Today’s reading: Nehemiah 8-9.

For the Word, for the Word was at the birth of the Beginning.
It made the heavens and the earth and set them spinning,
and for several million years,
it’s withstood all our “Forums” and “fine ideas.”
— It’s been rough,
It’s been rough, but it appears to be winning!

“Mass” by Bernstein and Schwartz

The  power of God’s word is one of the most fundamental  doctrines of the Christian faith. It is the creative power that made the universe out of nothing. It is the enlightening power that reveals truth, the commanding power that directs man’s ways, the healing power of Jesus, even the destructive power that wiped away the wickedness of Noah’s time. Most of all, God’s word is that thing to which we must all respond, either in obedience to our blessing or in rebellion to our condemnation.

The power of God’s word to move hearts was displayed when Ezra read the Law to the assembly of returned exiles.

  • There was sadness and mourning as they faced their sin.
  • There was revelation as they learned the history of how God had delivered their ancestors only to see them later reject him.
  • There was confession as the people admitted their sins.
  • There was conviction as the people chose to devote themselves to the LORD in a new and determined way.

Their hearts were moved and their eyes were opened. They looked at their desperate situation and saw it, finally, as God saw it.

“But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.” Nehemiah 9:36-37

The good news is that God’s word not only opens our eyes to sin but opens our minds to the right way to live. The Holy Spirit can then take that truth, apply it to our hearts, and give us the desire to follow that path of blessing.

God gave them his Spirit to instruct them (v. 20), but, they not receiving that instruction, he did by his Spirit testify against them. If we will not suffer God’s word to teach and rule us, it will accuse and judge us. God sends prophets, in compassion to his people, that he may not send judgments. Many years did he forbear them (v. 30), as loth to punish them, and waiting to see if they would repent; and, when he did punish them, he did not utterly consume them nor forsake them, v. 31. Had he forsaken them they would have been utterly consumed; but he did not stir up all his wrath, for he designed their reformation, not their destruction. Thus do they multiply, thus do they magnify, the instances of God’s goodness to Israel, and we should do in like manner, that the goodness of God, duly considered by us, may lead us to repentance, and overcome our badness. The more thankful we are for God’s mercies the more humbled we shall be for our own sins. – Matthew Henry

Pioneer Spirit: Nehemiah 7


Today’s reading: Nehemiah 7.

The book of Nehemiah makes Nehemiah’s wall-building famous, but the point of the building was not stones but souls. Nehemiah 7 shifts the focus from masonry foundations to spiritual foundations. Though the wall was built, the city of Jerusalem remained largely empty and full of ruins.

Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there… Nehemiah 7:4-5

Nehemiah repeats a combination census/genealogy first listed in Ezra 2. The lists are far from identical and that has caused consternation for many Bible students. Nearly 100 years had passed between the events of Ezra’s list and Nehemiah’s repeating of the list. The exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon about 537 BC. These are the people recorded in both lists – not those living in the time of Ezra or those of Nehemiah’s day. Ezra came to Jerusalem about 458 BC, some 80 years after the first exiles. Nehemiah arrived in 445 BC or 92 years after the exiles. As Will Kinney states on his website, the differences in the two lists are best understood as an accurate initial list and a somewhat less accurate retelling of the list. Both lists tell the same story, however. God made a way for his people to return to their land so that a holy nation of set-apart people could be reestablished, so that the temple could be rebuilt, so that the family of David could continue to live in the land, and so that the Messiah could come to them.

The pioneering exiles had the faith to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem. Chief among them was Zerubbabel, listed by both Matthew and Luke as an ancestor of Jesus, and the first governor of the reborn nation. The men and women who worked alongside Nehemiah were also pioneers with an equal faith in God to overcome the obstacles that threatened them. By pointing out these early pioneers to the later pioneers, Nehemiah did several things.

  1. He linked them by family and place to former heroes, so that they would be inspired to continue the work.
  2. He gave them and us a record to prove the legitimacy of Israel’s heritage and to help document the genealogy of Jesus.
  3. He reminded us that each individual matters, and that God knows our names and remembers us.

In Ezra, this list of names of those who returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel in 536 B.C. served to document who was a true Jew. In Nehemiah, nearly a century later (444 B.C.), the list answers the question, “Who is available to repopulate the city and to provide for temple worship?” Nehemiah uses the list to instill in the people a reminder of their personal and national identity as God’s people and to encourage them to fulfill their responsibilities in light of this identity. – Steven J. Cole

Image by Hc_07 on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

What’s inside the wall? Nehemiah 5


“I want God to be a wall of protection around me.”

Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to build a wall. It had been 140 years since the Babylonians tore it down, ninety years since the Jewish exiles began returning, and seventy years since the temple had been rebuilt. Yet the city of Jerusalem was still empty, unprotected, and at the mercy of surrounding hostile nations. The sad state of his homeland moved him to tears. Inspired by God, and with the king’s blessing, Nehemiah headed to Jerusalem. Natural leader that he was, and despite many threats from the hostile neighbors, he and the other Jews quickly built the wall to half its height.

Then real trouble arose – not from outside the city but from within. The people cried out to Nehemiah that their own countrymen were taking advantage of the current food shortage to charge them exorbitant interest, to take over their fields and homes through mortgages they could not repay, and to enslave their children to satisfy their debts. The injustice threatened to end the wall-building project. It made Nehemiah angry, but wisely he waited until his anger had cooled and until he considered what should be done. Then he went to the men who were responsible for the injustice.

So I said, “The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” Nehemiah 5:9-11

The men listened to his rebuke and pledged to make restoration for the damage they had done. The work on the wall resumed and was soon completed. God blessed the work and soon Jerusalem was once again the chief city of the Jews.

The people labored on a stone wall of protection, but the real wall that surrounded them was God. He saw what they did not see: the wall which they were raising, which they wanted God to bless, was enclosing a stew of sin and injustice. God would not have allowed it to proceed if they had not confessed the sin and eliminated the injustice. God would not allow himself, the true wall, to surround and protect such an unholy assembly.

You and I don’t build stone walls for protection today, but we do raise up other walls: armies, police, security systems. We also cry out in prayer for God to protect us and be that hedge around us. But what are we asking God to protect? What’s inside the wall? As I look around I see much that God would refuse to protect, not only outside the church but inside it as well. Abuses of marriage, adultery and other sexual sins, pornography, child abuse, neglect of Bible study, robbing God of our offerings. It’s time for the church to confess its sins and agree to stop these unholy practices. Today, be Nehemiah and react with passion against the injustices in your own life. Then God will once again build up the wall of protection we long for and bless our cities.

Image by Tim Lucas on Flickr, CC by 2.0