2. Barren Women

Studies in Isaiah 54: 2. Barren Women

Isa 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”

Ohhhhhh!: How easy it is to pass over words of Scripture and not let them impact you. The analogy here, of Israel (or perhaps Jerusalem), is one of a disheartened, broken woman. Few of us can understand the heartache of being childless, of the yearning to have that sense of fulfillment as a child-bearing woman but who has never yet conceived. But the Bible seems full of such women, key women in the plans and purposes of God, and so perhaps we need to note them to take in the awfulness of the picture that Isaiah now presents to us.

The Women of Anguish: The first of these is Sarai: “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” (Gen 11:30) When she seems unable to conceive, despite the number of times the Lord had promised a family that would grow into a multitude, she gave her servant girl to Abram, who promptly conceives; it is obvious the problem lies with her and not with Abram. (Gen 16:3,4) When God turned up and reiterated the promise that Sarah (as she now was) would conceive, she laughed, but it was laughter of unbelief, of derision, and the Lord pulled her up on it (Gen 18:10-15). When she does eventually conceive she laughs again but now it is of joy (Gen 21:6)

It almost seemed to run in the family. Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, marries Rebekah but she too remains childless for twenty years (Gen 25:21). We aren’t told what Rebekah felt but in the next generation the same thing happens to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  (Gen 30:1) Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Hannah who became the mother of Samuel the judge-cum-first prophet: “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son.” (1 Sam 1:10,11)

Assessment: Children in the Hebrew culture (and in many others) were seen as a sign of God’s blessing: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:3-5) Thus the absence of children would have acted as a question mark over the spirituality of the wife if not the couple. The declaration of this barrenness that hung prophetically over Israel, as now declared by Isaiah, says six things: First it proclaims that bearing offspring was considered what was natural, what the Lord intended. Second, the absence of offspring was something to anguish over. Third, there must have been a reason for it.  Fourth, transformation was seen as only possible by the blessing of God, and that comes again later in Isa 66:7-11. Fifth, there is given an interesting comparison with others who are not barren but not blessed, which we will see shortly and, sixth, the end of their barrenness is expanded to reveal a much wider blessing on them.

Hannah’s Blessing:  When Hannah conceived, prayed and sang, she declared, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (1 Sam 2:5) Whether she waited until years later to pray and sing, or whether she was declaring her anticipation of what would come, is unclear, but what is clear is the extent of her blessing, seven children, joy, and a sense of being loved (implied by the way her adversary now pined away). The releasing from barrenness in the present passage is similarly indicated in the same way that Hannah had prayed: “because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”  (Isa 54:1)

Now Get Ready to Expand: She, Israel, now has (or is about to have) more children than other nations (whose husbands were idols, we might suggest), and is thus told to get ready to expand. (v. 1-3) Expansion in abundance and enlargement is what is coming. Previously, “you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste,” (49:19a) but now the land, with the Lord’s blessing, “will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” (Isa 49:19)

Forgetting the Past: As He now says in the present prophecy, You will forget the shame of your youth.”  (54:4) The history of Israel, right from the start of the Exodus, was never glorious, filled with grumblings and disobedience and as the years unfolded in the Land, in the period of the Judges, it never improved.  But the good news is that although the Lord requires us to confront the present, He does not hold the failures of the past over us; He is more concerned that we repent (Ezek 18:23,32, 2 Pet 3:9). Now the past will be forgotten in the light of the present blessings and, as we saw yesterday, those blessings can come to us because of the work of Christ on the Cross.

New Application: Under the New Covenant the apostle Paul took this present passage and applied it to the present reality.  (See Gal 4:24-27) So, Sarah was the barren woman who, though technically was Abraham’s wife, never had been previously able to fulfil the full outworking of marriage – bear children – and was replaced by Hagar. Yet we know that the desolate woman, Sarah, was enabled by God to bear Isaac, the child of promise. Paul applies all this to the Law and to slavery because although Hagar (representing the Law) had children naturally with Abraham, she was still a slave.

As the message version puts those first verses: “The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is ….a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.”  Through new birth, from heaven, from the city of God in heaven, the ‘invisible Jerusalem’, which acts as our mother, we are children of promise born to be free. The ‘mother’ of the old covenant was the Law but all those who sought to follow it found themselves slaves to failure and guilt. Born from above, we are now free, children born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, who will one day return to our home – heaven. Hallelujah!

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12. God’s Holy Mountain

Reaching into the Psalms 1 to 4:  12. God’s Holy Mountain

Psa 3:4    he answers me from his holy mountain.

God’s Presence: Again, how casually I have sped over these words with so little thought, and yet I suspect (is He telling me?) that here there are such profound truths to be mined as we meditate. Before we move on in this psalm, I believe there is something of significance that we have passed by without comment here in verse 4: “he answers me from his holy mountain”. What is that ‘holy mountain’?

Zion: Well, back in Psa 2 we read, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psa 2:6) Further back in 2 Sam 5:7 we read, “David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.” That is the first reference to ‘Zion’ and it clearly meant Jerusalem. It had long been known as Jerusalem, occupied by the Jebusites who Israel had failed to overthrow initially (Judg 1:21), and it had not been taken until David arrived in power, when he re-established it as his base and subsequently the capital of Israel. When the ark was brought there, and later in Solomon’s reign the temple built, and filled with God’s presence (1 Kings 8:10,11), it became known as the ‘holy city’: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city.” (Isa 52:1)

Jerusalem: Jerusalem is described as “set high in the hills of Judah” (New Bible Dictionary) and one Internet site describes Jerusalem as follows: “Jerusalem’s seven hills are Mount Scopus, Mount Olivet and the Mount of Corruption (all three are peaks in a mountain ridge that lies east of the old city), Mount Ophel, the original Mount Zion, the New Mount Zion and the hill on which the Antonia Fortress was built.” When a prophet or psalmist refers to the ‘mountain of the Lord’ or ‘his holy mountain’ it can either mean Jerusalem generally or the hill or mountain on which the Temple was eventually built.

As David writes pre-the Temple, it is more likely to mean Jerusalem at large, Jerusalem the whole city. The designation ‘mountain’ may refer to the fact that all of the ‘hills’ of the Jerusalem area are well over 2000 feet above sea level, or it may simply be creating spiritual significance of a place of ascent on which God resides. A study of ‘mountains’ in the Old Testament must take us first to Moriah: Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen 22:2) Amazingly this was Jerusalem where Solomon eventually built the temple (2 Chron 3:1) equated today, it is said, with the vicinity of Calvary. What a symbolic picture. The second mountain that stands out is Sinai where God met with Israel during the Exodus (See Ex 19-). The imagery that goes with that encounter suggests inaccessibility except by divine permission. So often when people went there, the record says they went up to Jerusalem, that same picture of ascending to meet with God that Moses showed us. Thus Jerusalem becomes the place of encounter with the inaccessible God and the place of god’s offering of His own Son to save the world.

Tent of Meeting: God’s instructions to build a Tabernacle (Ex 25-27) appear to be His early means of bringing limited access to Himself by His people. It was also referred to as ‘the tent of meeting (Ex 27:21 etc.): Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, on the first day of the first month. Place the ark of the covenant law in it and shield the ark with the curtain.” (Ex 40:2,3) and it continued in existence until Solomon replaced it with the Temple (see 1 Kings 8). However in the time of Eli and Samuel, after the debacle with the Philistines, the ark (and presumably the Tent) stayed at Kiriath Jearim (1 Sam 7:1,2) until twenty years later David took it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6) where it was placed inside “the tent that David had pitched for it.” (1 Chron 16:1), but this was clearly different from the Tabernacle still pitched at Gibeon (1 Chron 16:39) The ‘tent’ was clearly simply the home or location for the ‘ark of the covenant’ that was seen to be the place where the presence of God resided on earth. As we noted above, both ark and tent of meeting (as this tent now clearly became) were taken to the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:1-4)

God’s Dwelling Place? The ark in the Tabernacle? The ark in the Temple? The ark disappeared in history, but the Temple remained until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it during the Exile but until then the Temple (and the ark) had been the focus or ‘dwelling place’ of God on earth. Why is that so significant? Because it was there by God’s instructions, and it was a place of focus on God, a place where people could go to worship God (even though they could not encounter His presence hidden in the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies). So when David prays and get answers, they come from the God who has revealed Himself and positioned Himself in the midst of Israel.

And Today? The writer to the Hebrews conveys something quite amazing when he speaks to us: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire …. But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb 12:18,22) For us, Mount Zion is not just a mountain but a city and it is in heaven. At the end of his amazing visions recorded in the book of Revelation, John records, “One of the seven angels…. said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Rev 21:9,10) In the final words that follow it is clear that this heavenly city comes down to the newly recreated earth and is accessible to all, and Father and Son are in the midst of it. The mountain where God had been inaccessible, the place where the Godhead dwells, has finally come to be in the midst of redeemed mankind. In heaven or on the new earth, the dwelling place of God is accessible to redeemed mankind, to the people of God.

A Poignant Psalm: For David it was the place towards which he uttered his prayers, which makes this psalm, headed by “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom”, so poignant. Until then he had focused on God in Jerusalem but now he was on the run out of and away from Jerusalem and so his focus became more ‘long distance’ if we may put it like that. Yet there is another significant truth: even though David may not have close access to the Tent in Jerusalem, the Lord is still there; He has not departed Jerusalem, it is still HIS city and therefore there is a sense when David utters these words, they come with an underlying assurance that he is still in God’s hands, this is all happening because God is working out His disciplinary will for David and He, the Lord, is still the same and will still be there in Jerusalem for David to call to, and will still be there should the Lord allow him to return. God IS there – for us in heaven and for us by His Spirit, incredibly, indwelling us – and so it doesn’t matter what the earthly circumstances appear to be showing, in respect of the Lord, nothing has changed! He is there and He is there for us and He is there available to us because He has made it so! Hallelujah!

8. Mourning & Grieving (2)

Transformation Meditations: 8. Mourning & Grieving (2)

Isa 61:1-3   He has sent me ….. to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion

In the previous study we focused on personal grief, what happens when someone close to us has gone, but I am aware that when Isaiah wrote these words he included, “in Zion” which suggests that he also had in mind the grief that a man or woman of God would have felt when Israel went through times of unbelief and the land was invaded and Jerusalem was plundered, and the glory of God removed.

We find such times of mourning in the life of Israel expressed in its earliest years by David when Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle by the Philistine army. This man, described as a man after God’s own heart, poured out his grief when he heard of their deaths with the refrain, “How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Sam 1:1) and repeated again and again “How the mighty have fallen in battle!” (2 Sam 1:25,27) The song of lament extols them both, despite the fact that again and again Saul had tried to kill him. He extols Saul, honoring his position of king over the people.

Years later Jeremiah (it is believed) lamented over the destroyed Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar’s army had burned down both city and Temple: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.” (Lam 1:1) In chapter 2, verses 1 to 8 it is again and again attributed to the Lord. Yet in chapter 3 there is hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (v.22-26) Anguish with hope.

In the New Testament Jesus mourns over what will yet happen to Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.” (Mt 23:37,38)

In each case there is a mourning over what has happened or what is about to happen to the people of God and, more specifically in the latter two, to Jerusalem, the city that held the Temple where the Lord had revealed His glory, a glory that had gone.

The question arises, are we sensitive to the state of God’s people, do we yearn to see the glory of God revealed in and through His people, do we anguish when that is absent? The song of the Messiah brings hope, because the Messiah is sent to comfort us, even when we mourn over the loss of His glory. One day Jesus WILL return (see Rev 19) and God’s honor will be restored. In the meantime those with eyes to see grieve over so much formal ritualistic religion where the life of God is absent, but they also rejoice when they come across the body of Christ empowered and directed and moving by the Spirit and the glory of the Lord is seen. Pray over both situations.

31. Postscript

Short Meditations for Easter on the Cross: 31. Postscript

Acts 1:12-14  Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives … When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying….. They all joined together constantly in prayer

It didn’t feel right to stop at Easter day for the story has to go on. But it is not merely ‘a story’, it is time-space history, it happened and continues to happen. We move on to what are events that are probably a month and a half on from Easter Sunday. Since then the disciples – men and women – had spent a period of time up in Galilee with Jesus as we noted yesterday. Then they had returned to Jerusalem where Jesus left them and ascended back to heaven to sit at his Father’s right hand.

One of the things I have found in the back of my mind this Easter has been the emotional roller coaster that this time has been. For Peter, much of the time, it had been a nightmare. As one of Jesus’ leaders, he had let his master down – badly! He had denied Jesus three times – and, as we said previously, Jesus knew it (Lk 23:61). Who else would have known? Dare we even suggest there was a measure of relief – over this at least – when Jesus died. When Jesus rose, there was this specter of a confrontation with Peter, just hanging there in the back of his mind. But he didn’t take the cowards way out as Judas had, so he didn’t take his own life. He stayed with the others and went to Galilee, probably full of foreboding. And then, beyond anything he might have expected, Jesus told him to lead his church. But I am an absolute failure! Yes, but you are still here. “Feed my lambs …. Take care of my sheep … Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:15-17)

A couple of years ago, a young man came to me and said, “I want to be a church leader.” I replied, “You must be out of your mind! However, if God is calling you, go for it.” Why that response? As my wife says having watched me for many years, if you have never been a church leader, you just don’t know and can’t possibly comprehend the difficulties and stresses that church leaders go through. They carry the church in their hearts, they are there on call twenty-four hours a day, they are front of the queue for enemy attacks, they carry the discouragements and the criticisms and are so often expected to be perfect, but they know they are not. We don’t know what Peter felt when Jesus ascended and left them, but I doubt it was relief. His calling would result, according to tradition at least, in his also dying on a cross. So now? They did the only thing you can do in such a situation, they sat down and prayed.

Life will go on despite our failures; we have an amazing God of grace and forgiveness. We are out the other side of Easter now and life goes on. But he IS still here, by his Spirit at least, and he is still leading his church and he is still there for us; that is the wonder of Easter. Our failures, our confusions, our hurts, are not the end. He will continue to lead us and work out his Father’s will. Join him in heart and worship – and keep on! The future is in His hands. Amen? Amen!

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.

24. Living with Uncertainty

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 24. Living with Uncertainty

Jer 39:11,12  Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had given these orders about Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard: “Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks.”

The previous study took us up to the period pre-Exile, while Jeremiah was prophesying over the closing days of Jerusalem.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the chaos that must have followed the sacking of Jerusalem. The city has been destroyed and most of the people are being taken to Babylon. Some Jews, as we’ll shortly see, had fled to surrounding nations, but most were taken captive and deported.

Jeremiah’s Release: In the city, Nebuzaradan, commander of the imperial guard, had released Jeremiah after the instructions in our verses above he spoke to Jeremiah (40:1,2) and added “today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.” However, before Jeremiah turned to go, Nebuzaradan added, “Go back to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, whom the king of Babylon has appointed over the towns of Judah, and live with him among the people, or go anywhere else you please.” (40:4,5) How amazing was that! Gedaliah was appointed governor of the land and the commander gave Jeremiah carte blanche to go where he wanted, to Babylon or stay with Gedaliah. He chose the latter.

People Return: Then we read, “When all the Jews in Moab, Ammon, Edom and all the other countries heard that the king of Babylon had left a remnant in Judah and had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, as governor over them, they all came back to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, from all the countries where they had been scattered. And they harvested an abundance of wine and summer fruit.” (40:11,12) Signs of resettling, signs that perhaps peace would come to the land, even under the king of Babylon. But life isn’t always smooth and, as I recently wrote, one historian has suggested that the history of the world is the history of wars, of upheavals in human affairs.

Upheaval & Questioning: Now a word was brought to Gedaliah that the Ammonite king had sent a man by the name of Ishmael to kill him (Jer 40:13,14) but he didn’t believe the men. Nevertheless, it was true and Ishmael rose up and killed Gedaliah (41:1-10), but there was a reaction against him and he fled (41:11-15). The survivors were fearful of what the king of Babylon’s reaction would be, and decided to flee to Egypt (41:16-18). However, before they did they sought out Jeremiah and asked him to seek out the Lord and find out what the Lord wanted for them (42:1-6). Ten days later Jeremiah received a word from the Lord that they should remain in the Land and He would bless them there (41:7-22). Moreover, if they went to Egypt it would be disobedience and they would die there by famine or sword. It was a strong but clear word.

To Egypt: Some foolish men rose and took the leadership and rejected God’s word through Jeremiah and forced he and the other people to go to Egypt (43:1-7).  In Egypt the Lord again speaks through Jeremiah and told the people that Nebuchadnezzar would come and vanquish Egypt (43:8-13). The word then continued to warn that all who had fled would die there (44:1-14).  Yet the people rejected the word and turned back to idolatry (44:15-19). Jeremiah brought a final word that reinforced the previous words – you will die here (44:20-30). Apart from various additional prophecies added to the end of Jeremiah and an historical recap, this is the last we hear of him. What a tumultuous story. But what does this story say to us today? What principles are there to teach us?

Life out of control: The first and most obvious thing from this story is that, man or woman of God or not, we live in a fallen world and the circumstances of that world are not always in our hands. The Lord clearly presided over this time in the life of Israel and prompted Nebuchadnezzar to come against Israel to deport them and discipline and change them. Within that He made sure that Jeremiah was spared and was given his freedom. Nevertheless, the Lord allows humanity to exercise its free will and so evil men are permitted to rise up.

Purging: Now we might suggest that the Lord saw that the hearts of the surviving remnant were not purged of their sin of idolatry that had been seen for decades, and this is confirmed by their behaviour when they get to Egypt. It may be, therefore, that the Lord allowed this train of events, to remove these un-sanctified people from the land. They have been given every opportunity to turn back to the Lord having been given a second chance in the land, but their hearts are clearly not changed. It is going to take forty years of life in Babylon before the hearts of the people as a whole can be changed.

Our expectation – and this is a major lesson – is that hearts can be changed easily, but that is untrue. It often takes major pressures to transform a heart, such is the folly of sin. Very often history shows that a precursor to revival is the nation reaching rock bottom morally, to the point where people are crying out for help. Simply knowing the truth does not mean people will respond to it. That is the overall lesson about people. But what about Jeremiah? He demonstrates that although our expectation might have been after the downfall of Jerusalem that he was safe, his safety is not the big issue. It is whether he can remain the mouthpiece of God regardless of what is going on around him.

Our Call: For you and me, the first call is to faithfulness. Will we remain true and faithful to the Lord regardless of what people round about us are doing? But second, will we remain as obedient witnesses to the Lord, continuing to fulfil whatever ministry He has given us, regardless of how people are responding? I have often said in these studies that the Lord calls us, gives us a vision and then that vision has to die before He raises it up and fulfils it. Years ago, the Lord said to me, ‘I don’t call you to success but to obedience.’

We might look at Jeremiah and think, well, he didn’t do very well did he! He ended up with a disobedient people in Egypt where presumably he eventually died. Unfulfilled. Well, actually, no. He fulfilled his ministry right up to the end. His role was to be God’s mouthpiece wherever he was. He spoke the word again and again to Jerusalem, and they disregarded him and so Jerusalem fell. He continued to bring the word to the surviving remnant, but they failed to heed it and so died in Egypt. His call was to speak. It was up to the people how they responded, and they would be answerable to God because they had heard and they knew. Now they would be held accountable. Jeremiah was a total success because he managed to keep going right to the very end. The people? That’s another story.

So, to conclude, don’t have any romantic ideas about sin and the state of people’s hearts. Our call is to be witnesses. How people respond is down to them. Remain faithful, remain true, remain obedient, do all you can to reveal Him. THAT is our calling!  Amen.