Wednesday, October 31, 2012
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?"
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
This shall be their inheritance: I am their inheritance: and you shall give them no possession in Israel; I am their possession.
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
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.
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
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.
there is a place
and I seek Your face
and there Your grace
this holy place
a starting base
the only place
to find and erase
I rise and face
it is the place
where I embrace
this sacred space
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
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'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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
And you magnified yourselves against me with your mouth, and multiplied your words against me; I heard it.
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.
Monday, October 1, 2012
For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
A tender metaphor is given by God as He describes His heart for His people Israel. He uses the example of a shepherd's care for his flock to explain His love and His plans for His people. Chapter 34 begins with a scathing denunciation of the leaders of the nation. God accuses them of being evil, self-serving shepherds who have scattered the flock and let it suffer. He pronounces His punishing hand against these greedy and sinful shepherds.
Then the text moves to describe God's shepherding love for His people and His future plans for them. He will regather ALL His people back from the nations. The flock will no longer be scattered among all the gentiles. Obviously, this is still to happen since Jews exist in communities all around the globe today. But the day will come where God will regather them into the land of Israel by His sovereign, shepherding hand.
And the Davidic kingdom will be restored. That is the promise of Ezekiel 34. God would honor His covenant with Israel and with David. Again, in a future restored kingdom, God will be honored through the keeping of the covenant. The plain reading of this text promises this.
God does all this out of His tender love for His people. He is kind and loving and good just because that is His way. He is the shepherd that seeks lost sheep. And He loves to restore lives to bring glory to Himself. He enjoys restoring and saving people.