Monday, December 31, 2012

tough years

So for the last post of 2012 I am going to depart from a devotional entry and focus on some personal reflections. 2012 will be a year I will remember for a long time. And not for all its joys. It has been a tough one. I have some years like that from my past: 1981, 1986, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2008. All of them to tough for various reasons.

2012 started rough. My dad was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer at the beginning of 2012. There was a lot of chemo and occasional hope along the way. He fought hard. And he went home to be with The Lord in October. We had some good times and great events this last summer together. But saying goodbye to your dad is not easy, especially when he takes the cancer train to his final destination. It was hardest knowing that I lived far away and could not help him or my mom as much as I wanted to help. But the family holds together fine. We are better to have suffered through this together.

2012 also saw us move Joni's parents back to Kansas City. This was a task that took a lot from us. There were many trips back in forth to Pomme de Terre to help them get ready, and then to help them move. And navigating that change with them and for them has been challenging. But it is good to have them just 20 minutes, rather than 3 hours, away. And it is a joy to serve them even in the challenges.

It was a rough year for my wife, diagnosed with Lyme's disease in late summer. Most people don't know it, but she has been quite sick. Thankfully, it seems the worst of it is over and she is feeling better, but Lyme's is notorious for bringing unexpected bad days without warning. This is something we will continue to manage together.

But what do we do with tough years? For me it is a relief to see the calendar page turn over to 2013. Just that sense of another year before me gives perspective. I am not one to complain about the events I have been given to experience, so I will do my best trusting that God will bring me future perspective on 2012, just like He has now done with those hard years from my past. Tough years show me the loving mercies of a faithful God.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Who is the man so wise that he can understand this? To whom has the mouth of the LORD spoken, that he may declare it? Why is the land ruined and laid waste like a wilderness, so that no one passes through?
Jeremiah 9:12

The emptiness of lies
the broken smoldering remains
of what once was nice
beauty gone in the decay

That is the entropy stain
sin brings to a land
and no reasoning human brain
will fully understand

Ruin follows in sin's path
as surely as night to day
there is no escaping holy wrath
when we have gone our own way

That's why a savior came
so long ago to bear our sin
we have redemption in His name
a path of life to enter in

He Who makes all things new again
will change burned landscapes to bright
and with Hime we praise and sing "Amen"
He turns all our darkness into light

Thursday, December 20, 2012

wisdom that is not wise

The wise men shall be put to shame; they shall be dismayed and taken; behold, they have rejected the word of the LORD, so what wisdom is in them?
Jeremiah 8:9

God recognizes that there is a human wisdom that cannot be truly wise. In the case of Israel and Judah, the "wisdom" of its leaders rejected the word of The Lord. And that wisdom was leading their nation to ruin. Those who were deemed to be "wise men" (particularly the religious leaders) would be the first to be destroyed, to suffer, and to be taken captive. Their disobedient wisdom would not save them. In the end they would prove to be foolish.

This wisdom was ignorant and morally bankrupt. It rejected God. Any philosophy or manner of life that rejects or minimizes God will ultimately suffer the same kind of outcome. It will mislead its adherents. It will disappoint those who follow them. It will prove itself foolishness in the end. But, of course, it will be too late to reverse the trend. When God brought judgment for disobeying the Law, it was fierce and final in its effect. The only hope was to return to true wisdom and respect the real wisdom of the word of The Lord.

These words of warning to ancient Israel ring just as true today. And they call us not to a social revolution or movement of man, but to a personal assessment and commitment. Do I let my soul get persuaded by any non-biblical worldviews? Our society is steeped in materialism, scientific naturalism, intellectualism, eroticism, epicureanism, politicism, and "psychologism". It is going to be a fact of my life that a biblical worldview will require effort to maintain and promote in this environment. Wisdom though is worth that kind of hard work.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

worship does things to us and among us

Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!'-only to go on doing all these abominations?
Jeremiah 7:9-10

The duplicity of Israel was appalling. Jeremiah's message at this point was to point out not only the idolatry that had captured the lives of everyday Israelis, but also the incessant flow of sin that welled up from their false worship. These actions were the fruit of what they worshiped.

Entire families from children on up to parents were involved in idolatrous practices. The children gathered wood, the fathers built the fires, and the mothers baked the bread that was offered to Baal's cohort Ashtoreth. This is a whole other meaning to the term "family worship". If this is what the family looked like, no wonder the society was broken.

So one of the key points of Jeremiah's message is that it matters what you worship. From worship stems all your other life choices. We act out of what our heart worships and we were created to worship God. When worship deviates from God , our sins will express themselves in disobedience to Him as well. In one sense our sin is expressed as a worship disorder.

Therein lay the duplicity that Jeremiah denounced. The nation was marked by violation of every part of the Mosaic Law. Thievery, murder, adultery, lying, and idolatry were outward manifestations of the inner worship of the wrong gods. And they had the bold gall to still attend temple gatherings in some tacit fashion. God told them He was not interested in those terms of attention from them. This was not what He taught them, neither was it what He wanted. He wanted hearts that sought Him, worshiped Him, loved Him, obeyed what scripture taught, and were changed in visible action toward others around them. It was in the doing of belief in God that worship really lived. And that is still the way worship works.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

an ancient path to current peace

Thus says the LORD: "Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, 'We will not walk in it.'"
Jeremiah 6:16

God knew that Israel had ancient revelation that showed them the way to please Him. There was an ancient path known as the Law. Moses had been used by God to record it faithfully for the nation. The people could go to it to find the way of righteous living that God desired.

This was the good way. It was the pattern for living clearly given to them. It required the commitment to walk according to its directives. But it was a clear and easily found map for navigating life. And even as Jeremiah pronounced impending judgment from God, there was a call to return to the path revealed in scripture. It was the only way God's people would find rest.

The tragedy is in their continuous disobedience. God's people refused to walk in the path of obedience to the Law. They chose their own paths, abandoning the ancient, good way God had graciously given them. And so rest was impossible. Their souls were troubled by their lack of obedience. They toiled down tireless roads that they thought would lead to happiness.

My call is also to an ancient path. It is the good way mapped out in Christian discipleship. It involves daily getting my bearings from the Bible. I have no problem saying that ancient wisdom is what I need to navigate a complex and confusing culture. God guides me through His Word. And really, I find rest, joy, and freedom here in God's Word! For that wisdom I am truly and profoundly grateful.

Monday, December 17, 2012

trickle down deceit & destruction

An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?
Jeremiah 5:30-31

The major indictment that God leveled at Judah and Israel was that false religion was the love of their culture. They purposed to chase after every novel form of idolatry practiced by the nations around them, including child sacrifice. They passionately disobeyed the LORD by doing this. And no guilt or sorrow over sin came when they were confronted.

In the remnants of God's worship, not a shred of right practice or doctrine could really be found. Those claiming to prophesy on the behalf of Yahweh did so falsely, giving soothing messages that reinforced the desire for idolatry. The priests abandoned the law and did not listen to The Lord, choosing instead to make their own dictates the standards for teaching and practice in the temple. The worship of The Lord was corrupt from the top down.

The net effect was that the people had grown to love this arrangement. They could be just like other nations AND yet have a vague identity as Jews. But this was the opposite of God's plan for Israel which was to be a light to the gentiles and an attraction that drew the nations to God. The fire had gone out of the lamp. The nation had lost its distinct message to point the world to the true God.

The question at the end of this indictment is haunting! Who would Israel be able to turn to when their destruction came? Their false idols would not save them. God had decreed their judgment. Their own ability to do what they wanted would be ripped from them by occupying armies. At that moment of total loss only God could be seen. Their self-determined sin would fail them.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

worldviews that create moral stupidity

"For my people are foolish; they know me not; they are stupid children; they have no understanding. They are 'wise'-in doing evil! But how to do good they know not."
Jeremiah 4:22

Of course doing evil is not a wise course of action. God is using sarcasm to express His frustration with the moral stupidity of His people. They have been instructed. They had the Law. They had His prophets calling them back to understanding and obedience. But they foolishly disobeyed and went their own way.

There is a wisdom that is greater than any truth that this world can teach us. It is greater than mathematics or science. It is greater than history, the arts, or any compelling story from human literature. It contains deeper treasures than any school of education, museum, or human philosophy think tank could ever teach us. It is the wisdom that comes from the mind of God. And God's thoughts are recorded in the Bible. It is why it is a precious book.

God's wisdom is often mocked today. It is mocked by the scientific naturalist who makes sheer empiricism a god. It is mocked by the atheist who must worship something anyway... either his own intellect or the universe. It is mocked by the psychologist who reduces all human emotion and behavior to chemicals and evolutionary predispositions.

I have seen firsthand how rejection of God's wisdom creates moronic morality... even among Christians. The damage compounds in individuals, in society, in families, and in our institutions. It is frightful to know that vast groups of people who are being deceived by the God-mocking systems around today have no moral understanding yet are still responsible for their evil. This is why patiently living and passionately conversing about a Christian, biblical worldview are both major calls for all believers today.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

actions of repentance

Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us. For we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day, and we have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God.
Jeremiah 3:25

This is what acknowledgement of sin looks like. This poetic position of humble repentance was meant to bring Israel and Judah to a point of repentance. It was written down during the reign of Josiah in Judah. He was one of the reform-minded good kings. And Jeremiah's message recounts the countless despicable ways in which both kingdoms of Israel and Judah had turned from The Lord. At the end of this repentance is the response of agreement.

At its heart repentance is a way in which we agree with God about our sin. That acceptance of the wrong in our sin must lead to the recognition that our attitude toward sin must change. In this case, it was a willingness to accept the consequences of guilt, shame, and dishonor. That led to humble confession of sin.

There is also an action in repentance. It turns from sin to new works of right living. It is the call that changes our expression of who and what we worship. When we agree with God, we want to please Him. And real repentance turns to that choice in a visible fashion.

Repentance cannot be just saying "I'm sorry". It must move us to actions that show the serious new commitment to live as God wants. It is about that change that God brings to us. It is obeying the voice of God.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

two evils: rejection & replacement

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
Jeremiah 2:12-13

God's message through the prophet is that Israel has sinned deliberately against God in two ways. The first is the sin of rejection. God had provided sustaining relationship: fountains of living water. This was a vivid and lively metaphor for those who lived in a semi-arid Mediterranean climate of Israel. But they had rejected a sustaining obedience to The Lord.

Instead, a second sin marked their culture. They committed the sin of replacement: idolatry. They were left with broken cisterns they had hewn for themselves out of dry rock. Cisterns do not hold fountains of running water. They hold rain water that sits and stagnates over time. Again the metaphor is dramatic. Israel rejected the vibrant love of God and replaced it with a nasty malignancy that failed to sustain them. Idolatry never satisfies the heart.

All of Jeremiah 2 is a description of the apostate wanderings of an idolatrous people. It shows us what happens to a society that rejects God and attempts replacement. In the end its own desperation takes over as the leading edge of God's judgment against these two sins. These warnings are instructive because humans have not changed. If I do not trust God, I will make an object of faith for myself and it will fail me. That is the tragedy of worshiping anything other than God alone.

Monday, December 10, 2012

obedience trumps inexperience

Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth."
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a youth'; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD."
Jeremiah 1:6-8

With a call and an encouragement, any objections Jeremiah had to serving as God's prophet were silenced. God was bigger than the fears of a reluctant young man. Everything that God told Jeremiah in calling him God confirmed in Jeremiah by using him. But it clearly would be God Who would do it. Jeremiah himself was barely out of boyhood and filled with self-conscious fears. In this way a timid youth would prophesy to a wayward nation so that God would get all the attention.

When God wants to use you, never put up your own analysis of yourself as an objection. The reality is that God knows you better than you know yourself! He knew you before you even had an awareness of your own capabilities. God let Jeremiah know this by reminding him that God had already appointed him to the prophetic task before he was even born. God knew what He was getting with Jeremiah before the prophet was even conceived! (Jeremiah 1:4-5)

God always knows you better than you know yourself and well before you think you know yourself. That is why "self-knowledge" is not nearly as vital as "God-knowledge". Honoring God and obeying Him is more important than one dimensional self-analysis. This truth flies in the face of psychologized secularism, but this is a biblical reality that should not be ignored. Thank God that He did not pamper Jeremiah with self-esteem platitudes and motivational posters. Instead, God taught him courageous faith and called him to do what seemed impossible to him.

Friday, December 7, 2012

successful leadership

For Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people.
Esther 10:3

This is the last sentence in the book of Esther. Mordecai became a wildly successful political leader because he visibly lived out the outcomes of the Law. God wanted the Jews to take care of their poor and their needy. A major part of the political instruction given in the Old Testament has to do with caring for the very poorest in their society. This exemplified Mordecai's political work among the Jews in Persia. He worked to save them all at their poorest and most helpless. And God blessed his commitments.

The simple reason that Mordecai was loved by the people was that he really cared for them. They were prosperous and ruled well which led to peace and real love for their leaders. God blessed the rich dedication of that one man had to biblical principles.

So this is not so much about politics as it is about character and obedience. Those things came together and marked the actions of Mordecai and Esther. And that turned them to places of influence that changed their situation and reached out to a nation within a nation. Character and obedience in leadership change society.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

the final twist

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king's command and edict were about to be carried out, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them.
Esther 9:1

This was the big twist of the book of Esther. On a day when one man planned to eradicate the Jews across the Persian empire, the tables turned. Instead, the anti-Semitic conspirators had all gone public in preparation for their deed. And now, with royal backing, the Jews were encouraged to hunt them all down. The anti-Jew factions were rounded up and executed. This is the deepest irony in the story line.

God brought deliverance to His people through one man's faithful service to the throne. Mordecai's administrative gifts prospered Persian more than Haman's selfish hate ever did. The Lord brought assistance through a beautiful wife's patient faith. Esther dared to interrupt court protocol to stop the conspiracy. God had circumstantially placed her at the king's side to do that at just the right time.

It should be noted that God changed the heart of a pagan king who at first agreed to Jewish eradication, and then turned to perform their salvation. And he placed the Persian army at the disposal of the Jews to execute their enemies so that this sort of thing would not happen again. Justice was served. Using human means, The Lord brought about the best possible ending.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When God Works

Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced. The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor.
Esther 8:15-16

Things may seem dark
unescapable gloom
may follow you
but God can bring the light

Life may be sad
filled with the pain
that sorrow brings
but God transforms it all to gladness

Circumstances are serious
trouble fills your days
you wander in unhappy haze
but God will bring the joy

You go unnoticed
faithfully believing and trusting God
even though no difference comes
but then God faithfully honors

Light and gladness
joy and honor
come to you
because God works in you

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

a wish granted

And on the second day, as they were drinking wine after the feast, the king again said to Esther, "What is your wish, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled."
Esther 7:2

Esther's slow and sure courage is rewarded. Her faith has carried her through the tough times. She has won the favor of her husband, the king. And now she may make her bold request with certainty that it shall be granted.

Esther's beauty may have won the king's eyes, but her gracious attendance at the feast had won his heart. He was more than pleased with her as his queen. And he wanted to know more of what was on her heart. He asked for her to make her request and he let her know he was predisposed to give her that request with little thought as to the cost of it. This was the moment that she and Mordecai had prayed for.

Esther's only request was to ask for the life of the Jews to be spared. There was still some risk in identifying herself as a Jewess, but at this point it was not as important as the opportunity. And the king continues to support her request. When she explains to the king that ultimately it is Haman who is behind the threat to her life, the king storms out of her quarters to the adjacent palace gardens.

At this point Haman falls down before Esther to beg for his life. When the king returns a few moments later, he finds Haman hanging on to the queen and in wrath orders the execution of the man behind the plot. Haman is taken away and hanged on the gallows he built in his own backyard for the death of Mordecai. The end of evil is beginning to work out in God's purpose.

Monday, December 3, 2012

bigger than human thinking

So Haman took the robes and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and led him through the square of the city, proclaiming before him, "Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor."
Esther 6:11

This strange twist of irony halfway through the Book of Esther lets us know that all is well. God shows us His hand before it is played. And this peek into sovereign irony was ultimately salvation for the Jews.

It all started with a king's insomnia. Since he could not sleep, Ahaseurus calls for the royal chronicles to be read to him. Maybe it was a way to get some productivity out of his sleepless hours. Maybe he hoped the dry facts would make him drowsy. Either way, the interruption and the king's response to what he finds out with it, were used by God to further the plot of the sovereign storyline. A sleepless night was a moment for God to work.

What came from this was a big response to a small footnote in events. Mordecai had been unrewarded in his discovery of a conspiracy to overthrow the king. And now Ahaseurus is bent on rewarding Mordecai. The only royal official in the courtyard is Haman. The king asks Haman for a fitting reward to honor one who served the throne. Self-obsessed Haman assumes it his own reward and concocts this scenario.

And then the irony falls with sweet laughter. Prejudiced, hate-filled Haman is forced to lead his object of hate, Mordecai, around the capital city on horseback, proclaiming royal honor that was bestowed on... a Jew. From this point on in the story God is clearly in control of events. He will use the minds of His enemies against them. Haman will be humiliated by the "honor" he proposed for himself. He will soon die in the way he dreamed of Mordecai's demise. God is bigger than human thinking.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

the sovereign scepter

And when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won favor in his sight, and he held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. Then Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
Esther 5:2

The most difficult part of Esther's plan to reveal her Jewish ethnicity to the king was this breach of court protocol. Esther showed up to the King's court unsummoned and the king granted good will to her immediately. She entered his presence welcomed. From here on, in the good graces of the king, she had the best possible setting to make her requests.

From this point on in the story, God moves sovereignly with each step that Esther takes. God uses Haman's pride to devise the instrument of his own demise. In fact, the Persian king's power, the pride of hate-filled Haman, the history of faithful service to the king that Mordecai gave, and the simple obedience of Esther are all elements of God's careful workings of His sovereign plan. Each human being in the story had their own independent plans and actions. And God marvelously superintended them all to His glorious salvific ends.

I find the book of Esther to be a historical tale with a strong theological point. In that sense it is a lot like another Old Testament book with a female lead character: Ruth. God brought hearts together to save lives and further the story of human redemption. That is the beauty of sovereignty that no stale academic debate can capture. It is the drama of human interaction from God's point of view. It is compelling to read, to believe, and to see in action still today in human events.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two kinds of faith

For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Esther 4:14

This is Mordecai's conviction being used to forge similar courage in his niece. She was the last in her father's house. Mordecai took care of her because Esther was an orphan. He became a father and her advisor. And now he is pointing her to observe the way in which a sovereign God has positioned her to prevent a catastrophe from befalling the Jews.

Mordecai exhibits two kinds of faith. The first is the deepest: he has faith that God will somehow keep His covenant and deliver the Jews. Even if Esther did not succeed, God would still deliver the Jews. There were prophecies detailing the end of the exile and a renewed Israel. Mordecai believed the scriptures and knew that God would keep His word.

Beyond this, Mordecai exhibited a second kind of faith, one we seldom talk about as Christians. He had faith in Esther. He trusted that she would be brave enough to do the right thing and take her life in hand to appear before the king's court uninvited to plead for the deliverance of her people. This was a king who had already punished the poor protocol of his previous queen.

This faith in faithful people is important. It trusts that God is at work in the actions of people. It values the contributions they make by virtue of their personalities and positions. It is one of the central themes of the book of Esther since not once is God mentioned by name in the book. It is a literary device to help us see this faith in people. It is purposeful so that His sovereign work is evident as we trust faithful people that God is leading. I want to learn to have this faith in people even more than I do right now.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

genocidal tendencies

Letters were sent by couriers to all the king's provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.
Esther 3:13

This is the totally unexpected plot twist to the book of Esther. You can't see it coming. What begins as a romance of sorts turns into a political thriller. And the main story that has taken us to this point is really the sub plot to a bigger set of world-shaping events. All of this clearly points to the sovereign hand of God in the events of the subplot to get us to the bigger issue.

And the story's main conflict is the ghastly genocide of all Jews living in Persia. One powerful man's prejudice influenced the king to declare a murderous strategy... to wipe out all Jews in one day in the kingdom. Haman planned to annihilate the entire Jewish race over a protocol snub from one Jew, Mordecai. And in the kingdom of Persia, his plan was wildly accepted and put into place.

It would take the sovereign hand of God, who had already begun defeating this plot before it was even hatched, to work to save the Jews from genocide. Haman and the king may have casually sat down to dinner after signing the death warrant for thousands of Jews, but the city itself was in turmoil over the decree. God was moving to override human pride so that His covenant with Israel could abide forever.

No evil of humankind will thwart the kingdom of God. God will bend the actions of a superpower to His supernatural control. And even though the intent and actions of people are definitively opposed to God, those actions cannot succeed in defying God's decrees. That is the rest of the story of Esther.

Monday, November 26, 2012

they began happily ever after

...the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she won grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins, so that he set the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Esther 2:17

Esther was the "winner" of a year-long beauty pageant. The king's advisors got the bright idea to make a public spectacle of the search for a queen to replace Vashti. And so this massive search led to a large harem assembled from across the Persian empire. The goal was for Ahasuerus to pick a new queen from among them. This was sort of like "X-factor", but with sex and politics thrown in for good measure. And one young Jewish woman was among the crowded field of contestants.

For one year these women were pampered and sequestered. They were given the best beauty treatments of the day. It was like living at a spa at royal expense. Then one by one they were brought before the king in some sort of court contest. When Esther was summoned, her beauty, protocol, graciousness, and charm all immediately caught the eye of the king. There was an overwhelming attraction and he made her his new replacement queen, thus permanently deposing the disgraced Vashti.

In most romantic tales this would have been the ending. But in Esther, now that the girl has found her Prince Charming, the story is just beginning. All of the preceding events were the background to a much bigger story. A story in which the fate of a people and the sovereign work of the hand of God are crucially told to us. It is filled with political intrigue, big-scope suspense, and personal conviction. From here on out the Book of Esther is not a romance, but a thriller.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

macho man & the trophy wife

"According to the law, what is to be done to Queen Vashti, because she has not performed the command of King Ahasuerus delivered by the eunuchs?"
Esther 1:15

This question by the king of Persia forms the basis of events that creates the unique sovereign drama of the book of Esther. It began with a marital spat. At a massive royal party, queen Vashti refuses to be displayed like the trophy wife that Ahasuerus thought he had. And this disdain tarnished her value in the sight of the king. She went from being camera candy to being a profound embarrassment.

I find it amusing that the way in which human beings act has not changed much in a few thousand years. Ahasuerus and Vashti could represent a Hollywood marriage today. Everybody's personal egos drove the relationship. Vashti proudly refused to be the king's trinket. Ahasuerus had a sense of wounded pride that drove him to end the royal marriage by decree.

And in the book of Esther God sovereignly works in human beings just as they are to bring about His saving purposes. He would bring His will to Persia through the actions of an obstinate king and through a proud king's wounded macho dignity.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Persistence of Iniquity

Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities.
Lamentations 5:7

"Our Fathers sinned..."
generations make choices
that are in conflict with God
we raise our voices
in the same place they were

"...and are no more..."
The wages of sin
is a separating death
the shape we are in
could not save us any less

"...and we bear their iniquities."
still the same
as our fathers were
we bear guilt and shame
for the sins they bore

"Our fathers sinned..."
sinners they were
from birth to grave
and sinners we are
only grace will save

"...and are no more..."
mortality is the price
iniquity is the offense
but Jesus made it right
by dying in our stead

"...and we bear their iniquities."
once marked with a scarlet stain
we are now in Christ forgiven
true holiness, forgiveness is our gain
no more in death but looking toward heaven

Friday, November 16, 2012

fallen leaders, fallen people

The LORD himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.
Lamentations 4:16

The first to fall and the worst to suffer when God's judgment came to Jerusalem were the leaders. For generations they had perpetuated a status quo of cool disregard for God and His Law. And when the punishment came, it came strongly upon those who had done this. God scattered the leaders in the terror of war.

There is a twinge of irony in this poetry. The king was meant to unify the nation, yet Jeremiah laments that it is now scattered. And in obedience to the Law, Israel was supposed to know the love of God. Now they experienced no regard from Yahweh. They were indifferent. Now God was. Priests should have honored God and thus have been honored. Elders should have been worthy of respect and shown favor. Now neither group was respected. All those who had helped lead the nation down a path of apathy were now ignored by God. It was part of the destruction God can bring on people who covenant with Him only to break faith.

I look at the pain in Lamentations and I see the tragedy of sinful failed leadership. I find it interesting that my study had me pick up Lamentations after I had studied Nehemiah, whose leadership had a reviving effect on the Jews 70 years after the events of Lamentations. The difference between the two scenarios can be found in the role of personal faith and commitment to God on the part of the leader. As a leader, my first and most motivating leadership task is to submit wholly to God so that He may lead me.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


You came near when I called on you; you said, 'Do not fear!'
You have taken up my cause, O Lord; you have redeemed my life.
Lamentations 3:57-58

When I was far away
I called out to You, Lord
and found You were near.

And on my roughest day
when I turned to You, Lord
I found You near.

When I was running away
You were waiting there
to calm my fear.

And on my repenting day
You ran to me where
I was, to pull me clear.

You have come to rescue me
from my trouble and my sin
wiping away my every tear.

You paid the price, buying me
from the slavery I was in,
redeeming me with blood so dear.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

false and deceptive visons

Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
that are false and misleading.
Lamentations 2:14

Not only does Jeremiah describe the physical devastation of Jerusalem along with the personal tragedy of death, starvation and homelessness in the streets, but he also intersperses his mourning with insights into the spiritual deterioration of the nation. For generations the Israelites believed what they wanted to be true. They trusted in themselves. They listened to the "positive and encouraging" messages of false prophets who made them feel good in their continued sin.

There was a lot of spiritual activity in Jerusalem. It was just the wrong kind. Idolatry was rampant for generations. The worship of The Lord, when maintained, was more of a cultural remnant than a living commitment. Yahweh had become another god among many. And for the most part the majority of the prophets and spiritual leaders did not expose this for the evil that it was.

The false prophets deceived the people. And deception's worst pain comes when the big lie is uncovered. But by then it was too late for the exiled generation. Families were destroyed. Children starved in the rubble of Jerusalem's broken and burned gates. Spiritual lies will take a massive toll on humanity... even ones that seem so enlightening. Of all the tears shed in the book of Lamentations, I think the most bitter ones fell at the realization of the layers of lies woven by the false prophets. It could have all been avoided by real trust in the covenant and in The Lord of Israel. But leaders lied, twisted the truth, and many people died in the unraveling of it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

themes of Lamentations

Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
Lamentations 1:5

In the sadness of the ancient book of Lamentations, Jeremiah the prophet becomes Jeremiah the poet. And he uses his expressions to mourn over Judah's exile to Babylon. The personification of the ruined city of Jerusalem as a fallen prostitute whose lovers have destroyed her is difficult to read. Judah is undone and broken by her own sins. Her own heart's affections led to her downfall.

There are several themes woven into these verses of lament. Predominant is the sorrow over the destructive outcome of disobedience to God. It is an element of nearly every verse in this epic poem. There is also the theme of subjugation. God's people are now under the control of the Gentiles. Other people own the fate of Israel. A third theme is the retributive justice of God. It is seen in judgment on Israel's sins (most notably in the destroyed city of Jerusalem) but God's justice is also implored by the survivors as they see their enemies reveling in cruel sin over their captives.

In all the losses mourned over in Lamentations, there is still an undercurrent of strong faith in The Lord. There is an acceptance that God was right in bringing the curses of the covenant to correct His people. There is a trust that God will eventually avenge the enemies of His people for their treatment of them. And even in places there is a hope flickering in the ashes for a merciful renewal yet to come.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.
Nehemiah 13:22

The final chapter of the book of Nehemiah shows a series of tests to Nehemiah's leadership as the new commitment of the Jews to the covenant is seriously tested. While Nehemiah was away to the Persian court on official reporting business as governor, the people of Jerusalem began to stray away from their faith's demands. It began with the priests making an allowance for a gentile within the temple walls. Other offenses included clear Sabbath violation as well as intermarriage with foreign wives. Nehemiah confronts each issue with a seriousness, pointing out its error, illustrating God's judgment in the past, actively confronting those leading the sin, and demanding repentance in new actions.

Time is the test of all spiritual commitment. And great leaders are moved by a long term view of the steadfast love of God. Nehemiah fell on the longsuffering mercies of God for the nation as he led them once again to do the things that showed their commitment to be the people of God. God was faithful in His steadfast love even as Israel still struggled. Nehemiah's leadership again turned them back to God.

Often ministry is about leading people to do the right thing over and over. And that was the real value of what Nehemiah did. He committed himself to a faithful God even as he had to keep admonishing a less than faithful people. The result was regular repentance and renewal. And that is often what it takes for a group of people to know their God is at work among them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

a joy heard far away

And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.
Nehemiah 12:43

This celebration came after a lot of hard work and tears. The hard work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem was done. But the hard work of resettling Jerusalem had to be complete before this celebrations could truly occur at this scale. And in between those two events was a tearful renewal of the covenant as the people took responsibility for past sins and recommitted to follow The Lord and keep His Law in their hearts and lives.

Nehemiah organized a massive city-wide worship service. The Levites stationed choirs and worship leaders all along the wall. The city was encircled by praise. And when the joy started in song, then all of Jerusalem ...every man, woman and child... joined in. It was impressive.

The joyful celebration was so festive that the sound carried away from the city to echo in the Judean hills. The whole of Judea was aware of the worship of God in Jerusalem on that day. It was a joy that carried on the winds of praise.

There can be moments where worship is this sort of transcendent experience for me. And I am transported to a hope for eternal pleasures from God. That is the emotion I feel when I read this text. I cannot fathom the joy that must have swept Jerusalem on that day. But I do know that eternity will be blessed with a constant sensation of it. And that is a hope that helps me carry on when joy is fleeting right now.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

priority: followers. premium: leaders.

Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem. And the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in Jerusalem the holy city, while nine out of ten remained in the other towns. And the people blessed all the men who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 11:1-2

This was the strategy for repopulating the city of Jerusalem. Now that it had strong walls for the protection of the citizenry, it was time to fill it with homes and families. The solution was simple. Ten percent of the rural population surrounding the city in the hills of Judea would relocate to start new lives in Jerusalem. Volunteers were encouraged and recruited. If enough volunteers did not come from any particular village, lots were cast until that ten percent quota was reached. In this way Jerusalem was resettled.

Nehemiah refused to let Jerusalem be filled with a bureaucracy. Before the resettling, that was the city's condition. It was thinly populated with leaders, priests, government officials, and levites. Nehemiah knew that the average population from the countryside would bring balance to the city. That is why this plan was instituted. And it turned Jerusalem back into the thriving urban center it was meant to be.

You can't be successful only as a city of leaders. Someone has to follow. But idolizing leadership can be a mistake we make about leadership today. There is a tendency in evangelical American Christianity to think that leadership is the goal of discipleship. But following Jesus is the goal of all discipleship. Some of those followers have leadership gifts and may gain titles. Most of them do not. And in "populating" our churches, Christians should realize this. We should train followers and also affirm and grow leaders. But followers are the first priority... disciples of Jesus who are following Him with their lives all around the globe.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

a curse and an oath

The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God's Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes.
Nehemiah 10:28-29

The revival under Nehemiah led the people to pledge a solemn oath to follow the Law of God. They had already taken responsibility for past sin. They knew the reason Persia ruled over them was because of the flagrant disregard Israel had in her past for the covenant. Re-committing to the covenant was done with broken hearts over past sinful failures.

In making this recommitment, the citizens of Jerusalem were saying that they were ready to put themselves and their families under the accountability and discipline of the Law of God. That is why it is called both a curse and an oath. It was an oath of allegiance. It was a curse if they turned from God again. Every commitment to God has its obligations and its warnings. And the Jews in Jerusalem went into this solemn obligation with both of those things in view.

Everybody wants God to bless them. But few will agree to His corrective discipline. Yet both are necessary for maturity and growth in holy living. It isn't much of a commitment if I will not let God show me my wrongs by correction.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

why a ballot cast is for a post-christian America

In a brief departure from the normal content of my blog, I want to address why this election (like every election) presents Christians with weighty issues to slog through in the casting of a ballot. Personally, I think it is good to do this exercise, but in the end there are always issues from both parties that make me disappointed with politics. I participate in my citizen's right to vote anyway. Many people serve this country to protect this unique freedom. Men and women have died so that I can do this. For that reason alone I feel like sitting out an election is unconscionable.

Look at the party platforms. Both Democrats and Republicans have set out their agendas for America. And for the most part the Republican platform seems harmless enough. Except, I am worried about the concern for restoring the American Dream. As a pastor and a biblical counselor, I have seen a great deal of idolatry come from the expectation that a high standard of living is "my right". I struggle with that because I have been to third world countries and have seen how Christians thrive in many ways stronger than we are. Do I really want policies enacted that create the idolatry of materialism? ...Something for me to think through.

Then there is the Democratic Platform. Huge moral problems for me to deal with. Two come to the forefront... Unwavering commitment to a woman's "right" to abortion and the redefinition of family to include same-sex marriage. At that point I cannot find biblical priorities for these issues. I can applaud some of the social concerns, but then these issues have me backpedalling away from the platform.

Lest I think that only the democratic platform continues the trend of post-Christian societal redefinition, I am reminded that the Republican presidential candidate is non-Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity. Not even close. Oh, I guess it is more "Christian" than Zoroastrianism is. But it is in reality not even monotheistic. So a Mormon president will also continue a post-christian cultural direction.

There you have the quandary. Politics and presidents are going to fix it all. Every election in this culture is not clearly black and white. It requires evaluation and making a choice most close to what you want... in my case... what I think best supports biblical values. But I am not kidding myself. Neither party will end post-christian cultural decline. That is my job... really every Christian's call through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel... starting with myself and then extending through a caring church to my community and my world.

I am Martin Burch. I am speaking solely on my own behalf and am in no way or fashion representing any organization. And I approved this message.

owning up to the past: broken

And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God.
Nehemiah 9:3

When the Jews in Jerusalem got serious in renewal of their covenantal obligations with God, it deepened their worship. They made serious efforts at it. They spent at least 1/2 of a day in this event alone. Three to six hours (depending on whether this is a 24 hour full day or a 12 hour daylight day) were devoted to reading the Law in a public gathering. Then an equal amount of time was spent in confession of sin. You can read the summary of it in all of Nehemiah chapter nine.

The generation in Jerusalem realized that disobedience to God's rule had been endemic in Israel. Their prayer of confession and repentance is a rehearsal of the nation's entire history, stopping at each important point to confess historical unfaithfulness. They owned up to their sinful history and realigned themselves with the truth of God's Word.

This has me thinking about how I ought to view Christian history. There have been historical failures in doctrine and practice in the church. Atrocious sins have marked those who have claimed to follow Christ. My tendency has been to shrug off Christian history's more wicked failures as something that other people did. But perhaps my view should change. Maybe a broken heart over the way Christianity has strayed is vital to the momentum needed to advance the gospel in my generation.

Humble confession from hearts broken by their own sins and the historic failures of past generations can make huge impact. I am open to God showing me how to own this as I should. And I pray He will help me show others what I come to understand.

Monday, November 5, 2012

city in tears

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.
Nehemiah 8:9

This is one of the tenderest moments in the book of Nehemiah, if not in all of the Old Testament. The occupants of Jerusalem have returned from exile. They have rebuilt the wall under repeated opposition. They have committed to The Lord. Now on a day devoted to the public reading of the Law, they are moved to deep spiritual emotion. A city is in tears because of their clear understanding of the Word of God.

Ezra had been leading the people in the long and difficult task of rebuilding the temple of The Lord. Nehemiah had led the people to rebuild Jerusalem's walls. The Levites had led the people to understand the Law's meaning. And this newly strengthened commitment, nurtured and modeled by godly leadership, came out in a weeping over past sin. Spasms of mourning shook the city. This was a repentance in tears. It was a good thing.

The leaders did an awesome thing in response to this. They created a way to turn the tears into celebration. They encouraged the people to think of this event as the start of a new day in which celebration should happen. They declared a feast for all the people to enjoy. And that celebration of the Lord's work and the Lord's Law spread to all. A city in tears became a city in celebration. Repentance became rejoicing. Weeping turned to worship. Preaching became a party. Introspection led to celebration... all because God's Word changed the hearts of His people.

Friday, November 2, 2012

faithful and God-fearing guards

I gave my brother Hanani and Hananiah the governor of the castle charge over Jerusalem, for he was a more faithful and God-fearing man than many.
Nehemiah 7:2

And exactly what was the task that required such faith and a powerful testimony? These men were called upon to oversee the security of the city. There were to recruit, station, and train the city's guards along the wall. The wall alone was not a complete defense. The task of watching over and defending Jerusalem required faithful watchmen on the walls.

Nehemiah knew by the consistent faith of Hanani and Hananiah that they were capable of taking the responsibility seriously. And they would find in the defense of the city a way to faithfully serve God. This was about the character and reputation that comes through faithful obedience in walking with God. And it led them to increased opportunity to be faithful in even greater tasks than they had taken before.

This was a major concern for Nehemiah. All he had done in answering God's call on his life depended on the walls doing what they were built to do. God had protected Jerusalem while the wall was rebuilt. But each man still built with a sword at his side. God would protect the city now that the wall was complete, but guards still needed to care for the inhabitants by walking and watching the walls. It is this balance of belief and action, hard trust and hard work, that is the stuff of our lives.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

with the help of our God

So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
Nehemiah 6:15-16

hard work is done
we finish what we've begun
the race is won
with the help of our God

we built a wall
strong and tall
and did not fall
with the help of our God

threats were made
nothing ever delayed
as workers stayed
with the help of our God

you can tell
conviction compelled
and we finished well
with the help of our God

enemies trembled in fear
for God was near
the hard work was here
with the help of our God

stone by stone
the wall has grown
and mercies were known
with the help of our God

established and strong
miracles moved us along
we can now sing a song
with the help of our God

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

walking in the fear of God

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?"
Nehemiah 5:9

This confrontation with the priests and noble wealthy among the residents of Jerusalem was meant to stop a societal sin in its tracks. Those with wealth were exploiting the poorest of the returned exiles. The combination of a famine and Persian taxes had impoverished the people to the point that family inheritance holdings were sold or mortgaged to the priests and nobles just so the poor could buy daily food. And this had become such a predatory practice that an outcry came to Nehemiah.

He saw through the social and economic issues at stake to understand the deeper spiritual problem. The practice was "not right". It was immoral to take away a poor man's living from him. None of these practices (mortgaging land, buying up farms, lending at interest, indentured servitude) were allowed as they practiced them by the law. This very type of situation was prohibited numerous times in the law (see Deuteronomy 15 and 23). And the way to repent before The Lord was to return holdings back to the original owners. The practices of exploitation must stop. Giving back to them must start.

Nehemiah included himself in the solution. He led in the efforts to give to the poor (Nehemiah 5:10) so that others would follow his example. As governor he could have decreed this change by force. Instead, he convinced the nation by scriptural precedent and personal example. And the rich and the rulers repented and gave back. And the nation grew spiritually prosperous first.

Walking in the fear of God meant abandoning selfish accumulation. It meant caring for everyone, not just self or family. It was not just a mere altruism, but rather it was worship. What we do for other people may be our sincerest worship and deepest expression of faith.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

prayer AND a good defense

And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.
Nehemiah 4:8-9

When the Jews who were rebuilding the defenses of Jerusalem were threatened by a coalition of outside enemies, Nehemiah responded very wisely. He prayed to God for protection. He kept his spiritual focus. God had called them to the work of rebuilding the walls. God would protect them in that hard work as well.

Nehemiah's prayer led him to action. That is important to notice and incorporate into our lives. He divided the workforce so that now half the men in each work station were solely tasked as guards, armed with spears, swords, and bows. In addition, each stone worker had a sword strapped to his side while rebuilding. This probably slowed down the project, but it kept morale high and vigilance focused. It managed to scare off the threat.

Many times we are tempted to think that to "trust God" spiritually means that we take no actions ourselves. But that is not wisdom. Trusting means taking truth to action. In this case, God providentially made the threat against Jerusalem know to Nehemiah. A faithful response was of course prayer. But it was also faithful to God to act in self-protection with that knowledge. Men were armed, guards posted, weapons procured, and even night shifts instituted in order to respond faithfully to what God had revealed. These were actions of faith just as much as prayer was.

Christians often fail to find the "AND" after prayer. The result is that we may see powerless prayer. God may call us to trust Him, but He also expects us to be wise as we trust Him. What if the wisdom God gives us to plan and perform is the answer He has already furnished to our prayer? Often, it is just that.

Monday, October 29, 2012

building with teams

Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set its doors. They consecrated it as far as the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Tower of Hananel.
Nehemiah 3:1

The third chapter of Nehemiah is a construction planning worker resource list. It recounts the entire project through the various teams and their stations around the perimeter of the wall. Some built the wall while others concentrated on rebuilding gates. This was a large project needing lots of manpower and strategic supervision.

The passage begins with priests themselves focusing on the work around the area of the wall closest to the temple. They repaired the wall, gates, and towers that bordered the areas around the temple. This was more than mere symbolism. This showed the nation just how serious the project was. It was more than a rebuilding of infrastructure. It had spiritual purpose. That is why the priests lent their backs and hands to this effort. This was spiritual leadership at its grittiest and finest. I believe it helped keep everyone else on task.

You can look at a map of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah and see that the city had roughly a key shape. The square "head" of the key was the Temple Mount. The "tail" of the key flowed down from this along the Kidron Valley to the east, turned around the old "City of David" district before turning back up along the Central Valley to the Temple Mount again. Each section of the wall had unique challenges. This is why the division of the labor into concentrated teams was vital to the success of the overall project. Each team conquered unique challenges and in the end the entire wall was built.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

rise up and build

Then I said to them, "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision." And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, "Let us rise up and build." So they strengthened their hands for the good work.
Nehemiah 2:17-18

The first task that Nehemiah had in front of him was one of inspection and motivation. He had to experience first hand the condition of the ruined wall of Jerusalem in order to grasp the scope of the work ahead of him. A night time ride covering the circuit of the city gave him the necessary clarity on the amount of work it would take to clear the rubble and rebuild the wall. He then must work on the task of recruiting the manpower for the hard work ahead from the inhabitants of this broken town.

Nehemiah motivated the residents of Jerusalem with a simple speech. He realistically described the current situation, knowing full well they knew the problems. They were in trouble. The city was still in ruins. They were derided by surrounding nations. The solution was to rebuild. And then he explained two reasons why "now" was the time: 1) God had sovereignly moved and 2) the Persian court was behind the effort to rebuild Jerusalem.

The effect was that the citizens of Jerusalem were encouraged to apply themselves to the good, hard work of rebuilding the city walls. God's sovereign move in the heart of Nehemiah, confirmed in the good will and provision of the Persian king, led the people to rise up and build. God works within human systems to do His work. He can work beyond them, but in the case of Nehemiah we get to see just how God is sovereign within human government. Personally, I find it powerfully encouraging!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

confession as a path to leadership

let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned.
Nehemiah 1:6

This was the prayer of a man whose heart was broken and burdened. Nehemiah's heart was broken over the sins that had led to Israel's exile. He realized that the reason the people were removed from their homeland was the broken covenant. Their sin had led to their current state. Nehemiah does not self-righteously judge others. Instead his brokenness leads him to own up to his part in the disobedience. He confesses the sin of the nation and owns his part in it.

Nehemiah's heart was also burdened. When the report came back to him of the derelict condition of Jerusalem's walls, he wept over it. God was putting a ministry vision upon him. And Nehemiah was close to the king. As royal cupbearer, he had privileged and intimate circle access to the king. He sensed the time was right to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city. This burden moved him, even in his broken state, to seek the Lord's guidance.

Sometimes God breaks a person in order to use a servant. In the case of Nehemiah, He filled him with a sense of sorrow over sin. As Nehemiah owned his own sinfulness, confessed and repented, God filled him with the hope of a new vision. And that became a driving dream and a life destiny for him. God can turn a broken man into an awesome accomplisher of His purposes. Nehemiah went from servant to leader. He went from cupbearer to engineer, to project manager, to governor of the territory of Judah. And it all began with this prayer.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The New Jerusalem: The Lord is There

The circumference of the city shall be 18,000 cubits. And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD Is There.
Ezekiel 48:35

The book of Ezekiel ends with a description of a new Israel. The physical boundaries of the nation change. The allotment of the territories for the tribes changes. The whole layout of the map is centered on the new temple and the New Jerusalem. All there is known about this new way of seeing the nation is referenced from the temple outward.

One is struck by the neatness of the arrangement of these allotments. The city is a perfect square. The allotments for each tribes is a perfect geometric arrangement. The nation is arranged in a futuristic, orderly gridwork that works out from the Temple Mount to all the borders of Israel. This was a big vision meant to encourage and embolden a broken people. Their lives were chaotic in exile. The order of the future yet to be filled them with hope and with wonder at what God would yet do among them.

And the key feature of the new city was the presence of God. It was such a strong focus that the city would be known, not by a name, but by His dwelling. People would just call the city: The LORD is There. That's how moving the presence of The Lord should be. It should fill our lives and be the remarkable thing about God's people!

Monday, October 22, 2012

dreams of Eden

And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.
Ezekiel 47:12

This is a vision of the perfect future yet to come. A small rivulet streams out from below the altar in the temple in Ezekiel's vision. It becomes a pleasant stream as it leaves the Temple Mount. It flows southward through the Arabah, becoming a mighty river as it flows into what once was the Dead Sea. In a geologic miracle, the Dead Sea is transformed into a large, vibrant fresh water lake that eventually empties out into a salt marsh. But the new temple is so transformative that even the landscape and wildlife of the region are remade.

All along this river are orchards and gardens so verdant that a full year fruit season is the norm. The result of the lush garden is that the nation is fed by the stream whose origins start at the temple. And in the new "Living Sea" fishermen haul in nets full of fresh fish in abundance. It is an Eden reborn in Israel as they faithfully keep covenant with God.

Biblically, humanity began in the Garden that God planted. It was His desire that we walk with Him in a lush home of His provision. And this is what is recaptured in this scene of the new temple. Out of the worship of Yahweh in His temple literally flows a life-giving stream that makes this new Eden. And it is here that once again the beautiful garden is the home of humanity. This is the same picture we get in Revelation 22, where a new heavens and earth along with a new Jerusalem are transformed into a living Eden for all of humanity. It is what God originally made us for. It is what He wants for us. It is what our future will be.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Thus says the Lord GOD: Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Cease your evictions of my people, declares the Lord GOD.
Ezekiel 45:9

By stipulating the size of the property belonging to the royal family around the temple complex, God corrects what had been an evil that historically marked the king's court. For many generations before the exile, the kings in Jerusalem had forcibly evicted people from their homes and seized property in a royal land grab. This was because Solomon had built his royal palace not far from the temple. As the administration and size of the government grew, future kings felt justified in taking over private property without caring for the people they displaced.

But God did not want the kings focusing on palaces and properties. He wanted them focused on worshiping Him and helping the nation. The test of the real governance was how they cared for the poorest among them. It had been tragic that adjoining the temple walls were royal properties seized by oppression and violence. By drawing out the property lines in advance of restoring Jerusalem, God was clearly limiting the size of the government so that the king could focus on worship and service.

God cares about our hearts. He wants us to love and worship Him. And He calls use into a relationship that does this. I believe this is more than basic for leaders. It is magnified in their leadership. That is why the royal treasuries were charged with providing the animals for festival sacrifice. The king is the worshiper-in-chief.

Our worship comes from our hearts and is also shown by the love we have for people. This means that we want to care for those most hurt by human suffering and the effects of the fall. Justice and righteousness flow from God through His people to the world. We should live that way.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

nothing but You

This shall be their inheritance: I am their inheritance: and you shall give them no possession in Israel; I am their possession.
Ezekiel 44:28
This was the standard for the priests in Israel. They were not to live in such a way as to accumulate wealth for themselves. They were not to own property or pass property on to family. They were to be solely devoted to the service of The Lord in His temple. God would provide for them through their devotion to Him.
A portion of the grain, oil, and animal offerings belonged to the priests. And there were quarters for their families to live. The service of The Lord was meant to provide the essentials necessary for worship. If they were faithful in performing priestly duties, leading the nation spiritually and encouraging Israel to follow The Lord, then there would be more than enough resources available to care for their needs. They trusted God. They served God. God provided for their needs.
I find this rule for the priests to be compelling. It must have fostered a faith in them that was instructive to the nation. They could not trust their own resources or abilities. They fully trusted in God's provision through His people.
Help me to appreciate that I gain nothing if I do not have You. Let me trust in Your blessings. It is so easy to think that I am alive by my own industrious labor. Let me see that You are my inheritance and that You are my possession. I want to value You above all else that constitutes my life.

Monday, October 15, 2012

the glory of God fills His temple

As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
Ezekiel 43:4-5

This moment is the high point of Ezekiel's temple tour. He witnesses the awe-inspiring entrance of the glory of God to fill His temple. And Ezekiel is as moved as he was in previous visions. God is as magnificent in His glory in worship as He is terrible in aspect at His judgment. He is utterly and completely full of glory! And His purposes will proceed. He will be worshiped.

Ezekiel is witness to all these events so that worship might inform the lives of the Jews in exile in Babylon. The specifics of the huge future temple complex were meant to capture the imaginations of exiled people. The design was meant to instill repentance, trust, and a new sense of purpose. Revealing it to the exiles instilled a real hope, a dangerous faith, and a stirring to again follow hard after The Lord. Worship was what God was looking for in His people. And His purpose was to recapture them with His magnificence (Ezekiel 43:8-9).

Ezekiel's call was to faithfully record and describe to the captives this massive temple complex so that they might return to God (Ezekiel 43:10). When repentance came, the prophet was to continue to make known to them the details of this temple blueprint. So by that very call, it is clear that his preaching must have brought repentance. We have this passage to read now because the exiles were brought back to The Lord by this vision of His glory in His temple (Ezekiel 43:11).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

sacred space

He measured it on the four sides. It had a wall around it, 500 cubits long and 500 cubits broad, to make a separation between the holy and the common.
Ezekiel 42:20

there is a place
most holy
and I seek Your face
within it
and there Your grace
is found

this holy place
stands alone
a starting base
every day
to interlace
wise living

the only place
I turn
to find and erase
sin's stain
I rise and face
holy living

it is the place
God's mountain
where I embrace
God's love
this sacred space
every morning

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Most Holy Place

And he measured the length of the room, twenty cubits, and its breadth, twenty cubits, across the nave. And he said to me, "This is the Most Holy Place."
Ezekiel 41:4

Ezekiel's tour of the temple proper began with a look at the Most Holy Place. This was the one room reserved for the biggest day of the year for Israel, the Day of Atonement. Only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place on this day. And there, one day each year was sprinkled the blood of a yearly unique sacrifice meant to atone for Israel's sin.

In the Most Holy Place stood the ark of the covenant. And in this place the presence of God was held in most sacred honor. This was the center of Jewish worship. And the temple had to be appreciated and understood from this part of its structure first.

Ezekiel's vision served as a reminder to exiled Israel of just how holy God is. They were reminded of the most sacred room in the temple. It had to draw them to the seriousness of sin and awesome scope of God's power to save. This idealized temple vision would continue to make the people aware of the holiness of God and the sacredness of their worship of The Lord Who dwelt with His presence among them in the Most Holy Place.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

a temple like a city

In visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel, and set me down on a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south.
Ezekiel 40:2

The last section of the prophecies of Ezekiel form a description of the renewal of the land. The prophet tours the ideal temple and city and land. This description of a restored covenant has images of powerful physical description. This section contrasts drastically with the earlier tour of the temple, city, and land in which Ezekiel witnesses all the sinful pollution (chapters 8-11) that led to the exile. Now he is touring a holy and restored ideal for Israel.

The vision of this temple is long. It takes up the entirety of the end of the book of Ezekiel at nine chapters long. It is highly detailed and complex and can be readily blueprinted with a careful reading. The text is that specific. And you look at the size of it and you get blown away. This temple building is massive. Depending on the size standard of the cubit used, we could be looking at a complex spread out over a million square feet! This is a big deal! And it all exists for the worship of The Lord.

The point of this vision is that Israel needed a big challenge. They needed a big dream while in exile. You do not comfort a broken people with little thoughts. And this vision had to help propel them forward with redemptive hope. Envisioning a temple like a city helped to push the Jews beyond the crisis of their captivity. It gave them a hope for big freedom yet to come. It helped them know a gracious and mighty and powerful God.

God gave Israel a big dream as they held out hope for a restored nation. And that big dream kept them faithful. Lord, give us God-sized dreams! Help us see a temple like a city!

Monday, October 8, 2012

making Him known

Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations anymore. And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.
Ezekiel 39:28-29

The future that God declares for the Jewish people is that they will assemble from among all the nations in which they are scattered and return to the land of Promise. He will sovereignly intervene to assemble them. No Jew will remain outside the borders of Israel in that day.

Once again, in the reconstituted nation, the power of The Lord will be displayed in Israel. God was "hiding His face" in the scattering of the exile. But in the reassembled nation, His power and presence would be clearly known. Once again God's Spirit would be poured out upon the nation. And the world would know that He is God.

God's people exist to display the power of His presence and person. This was God's purpose for Israel. It is God's purpose even today. This specific set of promises applies exclusively to a future time for ethnic Israel. But the principle of God displaying Himself as His Spirit controls His people applies to all people whom He calls to Himself. God's Spirit resides within Christians. Are we making Him known in our world?

Friday, October 5, 2012

deliverance from the far off storm

After many days you will be mustered. In the latter years you will go against the land that is restored from war, the land whose people were gathered from many peoples upon the mountains of Israel, which had been a continual waste. Its people were brought out from the peoples and now dwell securely, all of them. You will advance, coming on like a storm. You will be like a cloud covering the land, you and all your hordes, and many peoples with you.
Ezekiel 38:8-9

In the recent context of the prophet Ezekiel, God has affirmed His restorative love for Israel. He has promised a people, in captivity in Babylon, that they will be returned to their homeland and restored as a nation. The hope is real. But we also see that it is eschatological. All through Ezekiel's prophecies there have been hints of a "far future" as well as a "near future" fulfillment to God's promises. Chapters 38 and 39 are the clearest explanation of the "far future" aspect of these promises.

God talks about a future enemy of a restored Israel. The identity of Gog and Magog is mysterious. We aren't quite sure where these strong military powers reside. The clues geographically seem to place them North and East of Israel. That puts Eurasia and Asia in the mix of biblical prophecy. When we read this text, the world seems to be watching these powers as they move against Israel. The words used to describe these conquests and alignment against Israel show us a massive army, respected and feared in the world, and bent on destruction.

Yet even in this overwhelming force, God will move to save Israel, literally from apocalypse. As Gog moves to sweep into the nation of Israel, earthquakes, storms, hailstones, fire, and sulphur rain down from the heavens destroying the army. God keeps true to His faithful love for His people, in the nick of time, even in a "far off" future.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Repetitive Love

They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Ezekiel 37:23

God never just loves once
then turns away
distracted by other loves
leading us to dismay.

God's love is solid,
fierce, faithful and strong
He gives us what our spirits crave
and that for which our hearts always long.

God loves sinning hearts
that will return to His care
He forgives the worst failure
with a love that's always there.

God's restoring love reaches
to me at my worst sin;
shows me great understanding
and draws my heart to Him.

A cleansing mercy full of grace
marks His love for all
and restoration sanctification
lifts us up from the Fall.

A never ending cycle
of God's unfailing love
changes people, makes a Church,
and sets minds on things above.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

the Israeli apologetic

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came.
Ezekiel 36:22

God's move to restore Israel was not predicated upon their merit as a nation. He did so to bring glory to Himself. It was all done for the sake of God's holy name. That is why God acts. His actions and works are rooted in His own holiness. And that is why He is God. Only God has the root of His motivation squarely centered in His own holiness. That is why His deeds are always right.

The promises made to Israel in this context are intense. God promises to restore them physically, nationally, economically, and most importantly, spiritually. He would restore the fortunes of His people so that the world would know that He is God. In that sense, Israel is an apologetic for the person of God and His work in the world.

In many ways this is still the case. Most of the dimensions of the prophetic content of Ezekiel 36 are still being fulfilled. So Israel is still a big testimony to the existence and grace of God. I know that I have no other explanation for the Jewish people than the hand of God clearly upon them. Given the history of the world, the Jews by all rights should have been eradicated millennia ago. Yet God has miraculously protected them and kept covenant with a less than perfect people. Israel is, for me, proof of the validity of scripture. And God has a unique relationship with the Jewish people still today that I respect, appreciate, and evaluate biblically.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

God knows the heart

And you magnified yourselves against me with your mouth, and multiplied your words against me; I heard it.
Ezekiel 35:13

God does not act in a vacuum. His judgments are not unfounded in the facts. There are clear reasons for His actions. He does not arbitrarily react to those who disobey and turn from Him. There is clarity to His justice.

In the case of His statements against Edom, God acts because Edom has delighted in the downfall of Israel and Judah. And nothing that was said in Mount Seir caught God be surprise. When the people of Edom spoke against Israel and against the God of Israel, the Lord heard it. He was well aware of their attitudes and motivations.

Edom's pride was the primary problem addressed by the Lord. He was moved to judge that pride. Edom's statements magnified themselves against God. They thought their nation was stronger than God since they had rejoiced over the downfall of both Israel and Judah. And that rising pride caught the attention of the Lord. Ezekiel's message came to Edom well before judgment so that they would know the power of God.

No word we say, no attitude of our hearts is truly private and kept from God. He knows the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He knows when our rebel pride mocks Him. And He will break down the rebel stronghold so that He may be known.