19. Redeeming Israel – The Exile

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 19. Redeeming Israel – The Exile

2 Chron 36:15-17   The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians

Recap: We have considered the redemption of Israel through the Exodus and then God’s ongoing redemptive activity getting them to Sinai and then into the Promised Land, His activity seeing them through their early years as recorded in Judges and then Solomon’s failure that resulted in the nation being divided into two. The next big milestone in Israel’s history that we now come to is the Exile.  When we did a study on Manasseh, we also considered the last six kings of Judah (Israel having gone long before) and perhaps we need to recap those kings here:

Amon: He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, as his father Manasseh had done. Amon worshiped and offered sacrifices to all the idols Manasseh had made. But unlike his father Manasseh, he did not humble himself before the LORD; Amon increased his guilt. (2 Chron 33:22,23) Contrasted with his father, did some of what Manasseh had done but did not repent.

Josiah:  A mostly good king (see 2 Chron 34 & 35) but was unnecessarily killed after a battle (35:20-27).

Jehoahaz: Only reigned a short period before Egypt came against him and so Jehoahaz ends up in Egypt and Jehoiakim is left to reign. See 2 Chron 36:2-4

Jehoiakim: (2 Chron 36:5-8) Did evil, was taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar after 11-year reign.

Jehoiachin: (2 Chron 9,10) A bad king who only reigned for three months before Nebuchadnezzar called him to Babylon.

Zedekiah: Refused the Lord (2 Chron 36:11-14), and after 11-year reign was taken into exile with Judah in Babylon (36:15-21)

And So? Now what this short summary does is show us the terrible state of the leadership of this special nation, a nation called to be God’s special possession and a light to the rest of the world. Moreover, where the leadership of a nation goes, the nation tends to follow, and the prophetic words from both Jeremiah and Ezekiel confirm that this was so. It was like the spiritual tide of Israel had gone out – and was staying out! Now, at the risk of being tedious, can I remind you what this series is all about: it is about our God who, confronted by our continual failures, perseveres and works to bring us through to a good place. Our problem with the Bible tends to be twofold. First it is so big we tend to be ignorant of big bits of it (ask any church group to recount the main points of Israel’s history as seen in the Old Testament and see how much we don’t know). Second, some bits of it that we do focus on (having missed the ‘hard’ bits), become so familiar that we give little thought to them. It is for this reason that I emphasise our purpose here.

The Exile? If some of the bad sides of some of the people we considered shocked us, and if the continual history of grumbling and turning away from the Lord in Israel’s history have depressed us, that should all pale into insignificance in comparison to what take place in the run up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BC, the carrying away of virtually all the people to Babylon. Samaria being destroyed, and the northern kingdom being taken off was one thing, but the destruction of Jerusalem AND the Temple is something else! It is clearly the end of Israel! – or it would be if Jeremiah hadn’t already prophesied that God would bring the nation back and restore them after seventy years!   Now seventy years is a long time, an average person’s lifetime. It turns out that that seventy years would be measured from the destruction of the Temple to the completion of the rebuilding of the new Temple. God’s house. God’s presence is the measuring stick. The means of the people being returned – pagan king Cyrus being told by God to let them go – is incredible. Up until that point, if you were a survivor, you might have been sitting there in misery in Babylon wondering how anything could possibly change your circumstances. And then suddenly a royal proclamation comes from the palace to your people – get yourselves ready, you’re to go home, yes back to Canaan!!!!!

Incredible! The story is so enormous, so incredible and takes up so many pages of prophecy and history in your Bible that I am not attempting to quote any of it. Read Jeremiah, read Ezekiel, for the historical references within prophecies, read the end of 2 Chronicles for the way it is summed up, read Ezra and Nehemiah to see how the return was worked out. It is all there, pages and pages of it. In many ways it is more low-key than the Exodus but in other ways far more dramatic in the sense of the many warnings that came through the prophets, the devastating events that brought an end to Jerusalem, the years of silence that must have followed, and then the edict of a pagan king to start all over again. It is staggering, it is incredible, it is amazing. If you’ve never caught it before, catch it now. This is God changing history just by gently speaking into the heart of a pagan king. Mind blowing! This is redemption!

The Lessons? The lessons in all this are very obvious but that doesn’t make them less significant. First, see the persistence of God who through His prophets tries to hedge off this catastrophe. The sheer number, content and completeness of the many prophecies that came through Jeremiah and Ezekiel has always amazed me. Again and again the words kept coming to each of these last kings, trying to bring them to their senses. Yes, the first thing has to be the love and persistence of God that sought to prevent it all happening. Second, there has to be the folly of mankind for, let’s be honest, Israel were no greater or no worse than the rest of the world; they just came as a demonstration example under the microscope to show us folly at its best (or worst), even in the face of God’s continual love, with God talking to them all the time.  Third, there has to be seen the wisdom of God seen through what takes place. Yes, it is horrific when Jerusalem is besieged, people die, and others are taken off into captivity, but at the end of it, lo and behold, here are a holy people, a purified people who are seeking God, seeking to ensure their lives are right with God and who are free of idol worship. Jerusalem, the land, Israel, are all in a new place with God.

And to come? Yes, there is going to be silence from heaven for a number of centuries while God waits for human history to change to be ready for His Son to come and the good news to be spread around the world, but in the meantime, Israel are still there, ready to be the environment for all of those amazing events we find in the New Testament, and it will be to those we will turn in the next study, as we pursue God’s redemption of Israel.

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26. Heart Cries

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 26. Heart Cries

Neh 1:3,4  They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven

In the previous study we noted that it is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430, and we briefly noted that Ezra starts off with God prompting king Cyrus to allow the Jews to return to the land to rebuild the Temple, in accordance with the word He had spoken through Isaiah a century before, and more recently through Jeremiah. Dates are significant in all this, so please try and cope with them all.

The start of Ezra identifies the time as “the first year of Cyrus king of Persia,” (Ezra 1:1) which was 538BC. The temple rebuilding appears to have started in the Spring of 536BC (Ezra 3:8) and was completed in 516BC (Ezra 6:15) The traditional view of dating has Ezra arriving in Jerusalem in 458BC and Nehemiah arriving in 445BC.

The start of Nehemiah indicates a date of 446BC when Nehemiah first heard about the state of Jerusalem. So, looking at the big picture, Cyrus starts the temple rebuilding rolling in 538, but Nehemiah doesn’t get the city rebuilding under way until 446 which is roughly a ninety-year gap.

Now the interesting thing about Jeremiah’s word, which was, “This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jer 29:10), is that that seventy years was not tied to specific events. I have already suggested that between the destruction of the temple and the completion of its rebuilding, was exactly seventy years, but the words here “for Babylon” may indicate that the time frame is more to do with Babylon itself. Now Nebuchadnezzar first invaded in 605BC and started the deportation of the Jews then, and the first returning Jews seem to have come somewhere about 536/537 but such dates have a certain measure of leeway and so it is possible that the seventy years refers to the start of the deportation to the start of the return which again appears to be just about seventy years.

Varied Expectations: Now here is the point. These studies are all about ‘expectations’ and we saw in the previous study the possible absence of any expectations in respect of Jerusalem after the Exile in those who hadn’t heard Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word, and the possible long-term expectation of those who had heard it and believed it.  So the initial return was accompanied by plans to rebuild the temple – and that happened. Then comes standstill and what we haven’t noted yet is the state of the city itself. This is where we come to the start of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah Moved: Nehemiah was in Susa, which was the major city of Elam (Neh 1:1) where King Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1) reigned, possibly the winter retreat city of the Persian kings. When some of the men return from Jerusalem he questions them on the state of Jerusalem (v.2) and is told, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (v.3) From his descriptions in chapter 2 the city is still in ruins. Yes, the Temple has been rebuilt but it is a single restored building in the midst of a demolition site. This is the city of God and it has remained like this for almost ninety years. Nehemiah is devastated and “he sat down and wept” and for some days he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (v.5) It is only then that he composes himself enough to pray (see 1:5-11) and only after he has prayed does he risk speaking to the king (see 2:3-5).

One Different Man: So, back to our expectations. Everyone else for the past ninety years had focused on the wonder of the Temple being rebuilt – and it was wonderful! – but the fact was that the city of God, Jerusalem, was still a landscape of rubble, and was clearly going to stay like that. Now what is intriguing about all this is that we are told that the Lord prompted Cyrus to start the Temple rebuilding, but the city rebuilding was left until one man heard and was moved to tears by the state of the city. Everyone else seemed content to live with the fact of a devastated city; Nehemiah was the one person moved to bring change. How many times, I wonder, does history pivot on the moving of one person?

Gap Fillers: As I said, what is intriguing is that the Lord didn’t command the rebuilding of the city. It was almost as if He was watching and waiting for someone to catch His heart and do something about it.  Years before, Ezekiel had prophesied, “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none.” (Ezek 22:30) Previously he had prophesied, “Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the LORD.” (Ezek 13:3-5) Psa 106 describes how Moses had been a ‘gap-filler’: “So he said he would destroy them– had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him to keep his wrath from destroying them.” (Psa 106:23) Moses had stood before the Lord to intercede for His people. The prophets of Jeremiah’s day were supposed to fulfil that same function, but they failed to do that.

And Us? Here is the point. The Lord looks for those who will look with His eyes on His people and intercede on their behalf before Him. Nehemiah saw the city in his mind’s eye when told about it, and wept before the Lord for it. How do we feel about the declining state of the Church in the West? As I have asked before, do we see a living body that is empowered by the Holy Spirit who testifies in power with revelation, wisdom, prophecy and insight and who back it with works of healing? Is the ‘body’ full of grace and truth? Does it so reveal its Lord that people glorify Him (Mt 5:16)? If not, are our hearts moved in anguish to pray?

Years before Haggai had prophesied to the people who had paused up on rebuilding the Temple and challenged them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Hag 1:4) i.e. why are you more concerned for your materialistic lives than for God’s house – which in our case is the ‘church’? Are we happy with the state of the church that we see in our land? Really? Is it impacting the world and seeing the world being purified by its presence? Sadly the state of the western world is a downward spiral and the Lord looks for men and women who will stand in the gap, men and women who are not afraid to stand out as holy, utterly different, filled with goodness and love, people of faith who will cry out to the Lord for His people and this world, people who will make themselves available to Him to go and take part in the ‘rebuilding’.  May He find that in you and me.

25. But God

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 25. But God

Ezra 1:1   In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing.

In the previous study we considered Jeremiah’s faithfulness in a time when the Lord’s judgment came on Jerusalem and the Exile took place. The city and the temple are destroyed but seventy years later the temple is rebuilt and re-established.  Wow! How such a simple sentence whisks over such significant happenings. How easy it is to do that! It is probable that Ezra was written c. 440 B.C. and then Nehemiah c. 430. So, let’s look at Ezra first and then Nehemiah tomorrow.

Listeners? There are, essentially, two sorts of people in this world: those who listen to God and those who don’t. Which sort are you and me? The first I hope. Those who don’t, end up listening to the skeptics, the doubters, the agnostics and the atheists – and are depressed! Now yesterday we saw how a small remnant in Jerusalem ended up in Egypt, but the majority of the Israelites were now in Babylonia. Their world had come to an end.

False Expectations: This is all about expectations, remember. Their expectations had been positive. They had thought they were invincible and they thought their world would go on and on and on – because they were ‘the people of God’. Jeremiah had challenged this mentality with a word from the Lord: “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” (Jer 7:4) This was God’s temple and surely He would look after it and it would always be there? That had been there expectations for the future. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both warned otherwise but the people ignored them.

Nebuchadnezzar had come in 605BC and Daniel and his friends had been taken. Just the top people; fine! Then he came again in 597BC and Ezekiel and some ten thousand Jews were taken to Babylon, but the poorer, more ordinary people, were left. Yes, we can handle this; it will be all right, the Temple is here and so God will look after us. But then Nebuchadnezzar came again and in 587BC Jerusalem AND the Temple were utterly destroyed, and the vast majority of the remaining people also taken to Babylon.  The bottom had fallen out of their world! It was the end of Israel. Now their expectations for the future were zero.

Listeners and Believers? But this is where we come back to my original comments about people who listen to God and those who don’t. Perhaps we should add a rider: those who listen to God and believe what He says, and those who listen but cannot accept what they hear. The fact is that Jeremiah had brought a word of hope that we briefly noted two studies back: This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jer 29:10-14)

From the year of the destruction of the Temple to the year the rebuilding was completed, was exactly seventy years. The people had started returning earlier but God’s yardstick for measurement was the presence of the Temple, His dwelling place in the midst of His people. So anyone who had heard of Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ word could be living in hope – but seventy years is still seventy years and for many that would have been beyond their lifetime. Their expectancy of seeing the new Temple would have been small – yet it still did bring a hope for the future of Israel.

But then we come to the matter of belief. You have just witnessed the utter destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple and you have been herded like cattle out of the Land up to Babylonia where you have been settled. You have little hope of any change – but God has said…..

Will you believe? How can such a thing take place? These Babylonians have had enough of Israel and so have deported us and put foreign peoples into our land. How can this ever change? How can we ever get back to the Land? How can the Temple ever be rebuilt? Surely, in the light of all that has just been happening, that is impossible. This must be at the heart of all these studies on expectations. Will we base our expectations on what God says, not what we can see around us?   Faith is about believing God and living in the light of what He has said. You may not be able to work out how His word can be fulfilled; the only important thing is that HE has said it and if He says it, it WILL be!

But however….. the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia”.  The Lord may have spoken about your future, about your partner, about your childlessness, about your unsaved children, about your job or about your ministry and humanly speaking you just can’t see how it can possibly be. Your expectations are zero – except God has spoken. If you were a Jew in exile you couldn’t have guessed in a million years how it could all change – but it did.

God moved Cyrus: We don’t know the exact detail, but it did happen. Did Cyrus come across the Hebrew scrolls from many years before, the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah who had written decades either side of about 690BC, a little over a hundred years before the time we are considering: “who says of Cyrus, `He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” (Isa 44:28) and “I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free.” (Isa 45:13) Somehow or other the Lord spoke into Cyrus’s heart and he decreed, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you–may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.” (2 Chron 36:23) And that was it, and it was done!

Well, we’ve said it already, but let’s reiterate it: will your expectations be based upon what God says? When you hear it, will you believe it, regardless of the circumstances? THIS is what provides a stable foundation in an uncertain period of history.

22. 2 Chronicles

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 22.  2 Chronicles

2 Chron 36:15,16   The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place / But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets / until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.

I choose these two verses from 2 Chronicles as the highlights of this book as they summarize everything else that had gone on, and explain how the book concludes in the way it does. There are three parts to it, I suggest, and I have put dividers in the above verses to show those divisions.

It starts with God. Now we might expect that a book on history, which is what 2 Chronicles basically is, should start with a focus on people because usually history is all about how people have acted in different periods of ‘history’. However, the Bible is all about God and the revelation of His purposes for the earth and specifically, as He sought to use Israel to reveal Himself and His plans and purposes to the rest of the world. So it starts out with God’s activity.

I am tempted to produce a long list of references showing how God spoke into the life of Israel and its kings from the period of the reign of Solomon to the Exile but instead I will simply recommend you read the book and make the list yourself. The truth is that God spoke again and again into the lives of these people and, says the recorder, it was because He had pity on His people.  Now that is quite remarkable for I have to confess if it had been me overseeing Israel’s history I would have been first of all frustrated, then annoyed and finally angry with Israel, and all that quite quickly – but God held back again and again and again.

As I have studied the judgments of God in detail, the thing that amazed me most of all is that during the period of the kings of the two kingdoms, was the Lord’s restraint. I have concluded that there must be various reasons why this was so, but ultimately the thing that stands out most, in the apostle Peter’s words,  is that He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 pet 3:9) or, to apply that to the period of the Kings, He was giving them opportunity after opportunity to learn from past mistakes and eventually get it right.

However, that is where one of my favourite quotes kicks in: “The one thing that history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing.” i.e. we fail to learn from the past! This takes us into the second part of these verses and we see here the folly of Israel as the recorder observes, “But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets”.  And we might add – and kept on doing it!

That is the tragedy of the Old Testament historical record – that Israel failed to learn and, instead of rising to greatness with the wonder of all the things that God had done for them, especially in their early days,  they mocked the prophets, they despised what they were saying and generally made fun of them. These were men (and the occasional woman) who sought to get Israel back into a good place with God, but again and again and again the folly of Sin broke through and they continued to worship idols and pick up on other nations’ false religions.

For those who have never thought about these things, the last part may come as a shock: “until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.” Anger, or wrath, is a signpost within our consciousness that things around us are going wrong and are contrary to what we feel is right or just or fair. It is, in fact, right to become angry in the presence of such things, but what we do with our anger is another matter. Bear in mind that we are talking about God tolerating Israel’s folly for centuries, and we see that God’s anger is not hasty! Now in assessing the judgments of God throughout the Bible, as I have noted before in these studies, ‘terminal judgments’ are those which involve death and destruction (as against ‘disciplinary judgments’ which are designed to change people’s minds) and in the light of how long it takes for God to bring a terminal judgment, I have also named them as “judgments of the last resort”, i.e. God only brings them when He sees there is no hope of getting the people to change. “There was no remedy” or there was no other way to stop what was going on.

That is why in the last chapter of 2 Chronicles we have the record of King Nebuchadnezzar coming and destroying Jerusalem and taking most of its inhabitants into exile. The book was either compiled much later than the events recorded, or there was a postscript added for the book concludes with the record of King Cyrus, decades later, under the inspiration and direction of God, sending back the Jews to rebuild, first the temple and then the walls of Jerusalem. There are two major events in the life of Israel: the Exodus and the Exile.

The Exodus had brought them out of Egypt, taken them to Mount Sinai to become a nation before God, and then on into the Promised Land forty years later. The Exile was the ‘last resort’ action of God to take Israel out of the Land to be purged of their idolatry while in Babylon until they could be brought back forty years later. It would appear that the presence of God was absent from Jerusalem for a unique period, since the reign of David who captured Jerusalem and made it his capital, a period of seventy years, as prophesied by Jeremiah, from the destruction of the Temple until its rebuilding completion.

These are enormous sweeps of history and they reveal the wonder of the plans and purposes of God stretching over centuries and millennia. Living with our slow day by day lives, it is difficult to comprehend such long periods and the things that went on in them, which is why the last chapter of 2 Chronicles is such a remarkable record. We may not be able to see much significance as we look back over our lives, and find it difficult to think about the years yet ahead, but both are still within the ambit of the plans of God. Someone once wrote, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origins and culture is like a tree without roots.” The book of 2 Chronicles provides that history and God-culture for Israel and provides endless learning resources that we can apply into our lives today as part of the Church.

Perhaps these notes will challenge us to also become more knowledgeable about the beginnings and history of the Church so that we may see ourselves in a greater perspective. In one of his books, author Terry Pratchett wrote, “If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become part of someone else’s story.” Your story with God is your testimony. Like Israel’s, it probably has highs and lows, but if it reveals the love and goodness of God, we have indeed had our eyes opened to reality, and that is worth sharing.

11. Hope

Meditations in Deuteronomy : 11 :  Hope through Grace

(Focus: Deut 4:29-31)

Deut 4:29-31 But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.

We concluded the previous meditation with a serious warning given to Israel by Moses about their future. It essentially prophesied the Exile. Now for the Jews involved in the Exile, it is probable that they thought that the end had come for Israel. For centuries they had lived in the Promised Land as the people of God. Unfortunately they trusted in their name rather than in the covenant with the Lord. Jeremiah parodied this: This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.” (Jer 7:3-8) Merely because the Temple was there, that was not a guarantee of their security. Eventually the Lord said ‘Enough!” and the people were taken out of the land into Babylon.

Now for those who were still faithful, such as Jeremiah, a knowledge of the Deuteronomy scrolls would have been very reassuring. These verses that we have before us now bring hope to the survivor in exile. The encouragement starts, “If from there” and the ‘there’ will be Babylon. There they may feel God is a million miles away but if they seek Him with all their heart, they will find that He is there for them.  He reiterates what will happen: When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him.” There WILL come a time when they will be given an opportunity to turn back to the Lord; it will not be the end of the people of God, Israel.

Then he states a basic principle: For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath. The Lord had promised to Abraham that he would bless the world because of him: I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen 12:2,3) and later, “Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.(Gen 22:17,18) That ultimate blessing was going to come through Jesus, born into a family from Abraham’s family tree, and through Israel.  Israel may give up on God but God will not give up on them because He will yet use them to bless the rest of the earth.

There is something quite remarkable at the heart of all of this. It is the sovereign plan and purpose of the Lord to bless the earth. He had chosen Israel to reveal Him to the rest of the earth. Yet even if they fail Him, He will still use them to reveal Him when He sends His Son through this nation. In the days of Jeremiah Israel may reach the height of their apostasy and idol worship, rejecting the Lord, yet even through that He will still work.  When you read the accounts of the Exile what is amazing is that the Lord still has His various men speaking His word to the nation and to the world. As Jerusalem is about to be taken, Jeremiah is the Lord’s mouthpiece. Among the exiles in Babylon, Ezekiel is His mouthpiece. In the royal court in Babylon, another exile, Daniel, will yet be God’s mouthpiece to a number of these pagan kings. Even in the face of their failure, the Lord is going to continue speaking and revealing Himself to His world.

The revelation that is going to come through Israel is that despite being God’s chosen people they are still sinful mankind and prone to getting it wrong. Yet behind all that, there is the Lord and He is sovereign and He knows what will happen (as Moses indicates here), but has a plan that will bring blessing to the earth anyway! Indeed, as Moses says, God is a merciful God. Mercy is not deserved. It is just given anyway. The Lord is going to bless the earth regardless of Israel! One might almost say, despite them! Today the Lord still continues to seek to bless whoever will turn to Him, and when they do they will still be imperfect and still often get it wrong – yet he will persevere and bless and bless His children. The end will be glorious! Hallelujah!

27. To Joshua

“God turned up” Meditations: 27 :  To Joshua the High Priest

Zech 3:1     Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.

We conclude this series with another of the prophets, Zechariah. This is his fourth vision and he sees the high priest, Joshua. Now Joshua is also written ‘Jeshua’ and that is how we find him named among Zerubbabel and Nehemiah (Ezra 2:2 & Neh 7:7). We need to build up the picture of who was involved and when. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to encourage the finishing of the rebuilding of the Temple after the Exile (see Ezra 6:14). Haggai specifically mentions Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest. (Hag 1:1,12). The role of the high priest was partly as a spiritual encourager (seen in various places on the Old Testament) but the rebuilding of the temple had received such opposition that it had come to a grinding halt. In fact Haggai’s word had specifically rebuked the people for being concerned about their own homes but now ignoring the Temple of the Lord (Hag 1:4).

Joshua the high priest must have been feeling particularly low about this state of affairs. Here he was, the overseer of the activities of the Temple, but the Temple was not being completed. Will he ever be able to perform the tasks of the priest in the Temple again? There are those who make this vision in Zechariah involving Joshua to mean that Joshua was representative of the Israel and that this was a word to Israel but, I suggest, this ignores the activity or rather the lack of activity to do with the Temple about which these two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah were prophesying. This is a word that this man desperately needs to hear!

The Lord turns up and brings this word about Joshua through Zechariah because indeed Joshua is THE person who will oversee the work within the completed Temple and if the Temple is about to be completed at the urging of these prophets, then the chief priest needs to be brought into a right place and restored in both his eyes and the eyes of the people. THIS is why this is such a wonderful vision! This is the Lord who sees His servants, understands them, and feels for them and who comes and restores them.

See the word that follows: The LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (v.2)  Joshua has been coming under immense condemnation from Satan. Not only had Satan been using the enemy to discourage the leaders and the builders, but he had been pulling down Joshua with condemnation, declaring him a failure. Have you heard similar thoughts in your mind? “You are rubbish! You are a failure! Give up! Stop pretending you are a man (or woman) of God with a calling. You’ve lost whatever calling you had; you’ve failed!”  Satan had been rebuking Joshua so the Lord rebukes him in turn. Yes, Joshua was burning with shame, burning with condemnation and with a sense of failure and Satan is trying to destroy him, but the Lord has come to come to snatch him from destruction.

See what the Lord does for Joshua: “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” (v.3,4) which is clearly symbolic of his guilt being taken away: “Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” (v.4) Now the turban of the priest was especially significant because it had on the front of it, “Holy to the Lord.” (see Ex 28:36) so that gets a special mention in the restoration: “Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by.” (v.5) This representative of the Holy God is completely restored and the nature of his clean clothes indicates that he is reinstated in his role as high priest.

Next he gets his marching orders from the Lord: “The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: `If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.” (v.6,7)

But this cleansing and reinstating of Joshua is symbolic of something so much greater that is yet to come: “Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch.” (v.8) What has happened to Joshua is what will happen when “the Branch”, the Messiah comes. Then he refers to him as a stone (v.9) and says he will remove all sin in a single day (v.9) which can only refer to the work on the Cross by the Son of God.

This is pure grace! Joshua has done nothing to deserve this. He’s simply been there to serve the Lord – if the temple is restored – and the Lord comes and restores him and removes his sin. He is now equipped to be the high priest again.  Isn’t this what the work of Jesus has achieved, a holy priesthood? (1 Pet 2:9, Rev 5:10)

In a very negative situation the Lord turns up to restore this man, Joshua. He has done nothing to deserve it; it is a pure act of God’s grace. This is what the Lord longs to do with each one of us. How wonderful!

25. To Ezekiel

“God turned up” Meditations: 25 :  To Ezekiel

Ezek 1:2,3 On the fifth of the month–it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin– the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him.

I think sometimes we should give special credit to filmmakers. Their work is sometimes amazing. I’m thinking here of the film Independence Day. The arrival of the alien space machines in the thick billowing clouds made me think of Ezekiel’s revelation. It is absolutely amazing! The location of Ezekiel at this time is also something to be noted and amazed at. The fact of the matter is that he is one of the exiles who has been carried away by Nebuchadnezzar and is now having to live in a foreign land – but he’s still God’s man. Simple lesson in passing: if we’re Christians in a land under God’s judgment we may suffer some of the things the nation suffers – but we’re still to be witnesses in it.

So there he is in the land of the Babylonians, an exile – and God turns up in a most dramatic way; in fact one of the most dramatic ways in the Old Testament: I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north–an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. (v.4-6) Well, we won’t go into the detail of all of it, you can read it yourself, but even here we start to catch a sense of the incredible: storm, clouds, flashing lightning (ordinary so far) brilliant light, a central fire like glowing metal, strange creatures. As I said, Independence Day did it well. Perhaps they had read Ezekiel!

Later we read, “Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (v.26-28) There, in the midst of the incredible vision (see 1:1), there is a figure. When God revealed Himself in the most perfect way on earth, it was in the form of a man, His Son, Jesus Christ. There in the centre of the vision He reveals Himself to Ezekiel in an understandable way, and yet He is still an incredible, glorious being with incredible surroundings.

Now why, we may ask ourselves, did the Lord reveal Himself in such an incredible way to Ezekiel? We aren’t told and so we are left to speculate. Was it to counter all that Ezekiel might have been feeling? He is a Jew who has been snatched from his country which appears at the end of its life. It appears that God is about to give up Israel. It is the end; they are no longer His chosen people – or so it might appear, especially when you are an exile in a foreign land.

So the Lord comes with this incredible vision which leaves Ezekiel in no doubt as to who it is – and he is shattered. Then the Lord speaks and we see some more why it may be that He is coming to him in this way: “And he said to me, “Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. Go now to your countrymen in exile and speak to them. Say to them, `This is what the Sovereign LORD says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen.” (Ezek 3:10,11) Previously He had warned, “The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn,” (Ezek 2:4) so Ezekiel’s calling was to go to his own countrymen in exile and challenge them about the Lord – but they are going to be obstinate and will not take kindly to what he says. Put this together with Ezekiel’s own negative feelings about being an Israelite in exile, and you begin to see why the Lord revealed Himself to Ezekiel in such a dramatic way.

So why doesn’t the Lord reveal Himself to us in such ways? Two reasons! First you aren’t in the crisis situation that Ezekiel was in and, second, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit, the word of God, and the support, encouragement and direction of the church to help, guide and direct us. There are times when God does turn up in dramatic fashion but if that happens it is almost certainly because you are in big trouble and the Lord knows you need big encouragement!  The rare occasions in the Bible (here, with Isaiah in Isaiah 6, and in Revelation to John) that the Lord does reveal something of heaven breaking through on earth, remind us that we are dealing with an awesome God who, in His graciousness, mostly keeps Himself hidden so that we aren’t destroyed by the immensity of His presence. One day we will see Him face to face but now, for most of the time, He hides Himself to preserve us! For that we should be thankful. When we do see these times they should evoke awe and worship in us. May it be so!