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.

9. Not our People

Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 9. Not our People

Reading 8: Matthew 2:1–12

Matthew 2:1,2  Magi from the east came to Jerusalem  and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Context: The leader-heading for these verses reads, “The wise men are led by star to Jesus”. That is nice and simple, but I wonder how many of us ever stop and wonder why these ‘wise men’ or Magi turned up within a couple of months of Jesus’ birth while they are still at Bethlehem?  And even more when we consider the overall intention of these readings – “the development of the loving purposes of God” – and that seen in the light of the big picture concerning the failure of mankind, and God’s plan to redeem us, how does this little episode fit in all that?

The Reading: Jesus has been born in Bethlehem in the days of King Herod (v.1) and these Magi or wise men arrive in Jerusalem enquiring where the newly born king of the Jews is, that their star had led them to (v.2). Herod is clueless (v.3) but, assuming this refers to the long-awaited Messiah, he asks the religious leaders what indications there are of where he would be born (v.4). No problem Micah said it would be Bethlehem (v.5,6). Herod enquires of the Magi and sends them to Bethlehem to check it out and return and tell him (v.7,8). This they do, continuing to follow their star, and there they find Jesus now residing temporarily (presumably) in a house with his parents, (v.9,10) and they bow and worship him and present him with costly gifts (v.10,11) and then, being warned against Herod in a dream, they leave for home avoiding Jerusalem (v.12). An amazing story.

Lessons: Again an historical narrative that we must let speak to us, but it is a narrative that is full of question marks – and we’re not given answers. Who really were these men? Were there just three of them – we assume that because of three gifts? How had they really been led here to Israel? What was this star and how did it seem to be so specifically over the place where they were? Why did they leave them with these gifts? What did the little family do with them? To where did these ‘wise men’ return?

Mystery does not mean blind faith: Confronting these questions – and lack of answers (we may speculate but that is all it will be) the sceptic might say, ‘See, so much of this Christian faith stuff is blind faith!’ Well, no, blind faith suggests you can see nothing. This story says some unknown men turned up with presents, partly guided by prophetic scriptures. It happened, no problem and it was wonderful. The Bible doesn’t give us every answer to the questions we have but it gives sufficient answers to establish a well-founded faith. There IS so much here that does not have questions over it.

Guidance may come in a variety of ways: In these few verses there are three forms of guidance given. First there is the star over which still hangs a mystery, but what we can say is that somehow these men had an inner certainty that it was leading them – and they homed in on the right destination. Where did that certainty come form? May I suggest God.  Second, there were the prophetic scriptures, the word of God, and again God may speak in a variety of ways to us through His word. Third, there was a dream and the Bible indicates this is not an unusual way He communicates.

Believers may not be “our kind of people”. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very picky about how people should behave and if they didn’t conform, they were looked down on by these religious snobs. These ‘wise men’ were not Jews and I am sure there would have been some mumbling behind closed doors about them and the collective wisdom was probably, “Well they are not our people but they seem to have some kind of mystic guidance. Let them go and see where it sends them and then we can decide what to do about it.”  I cited the other day how some of the British Royal family didn’t take to Billy Graham when he first arrived in the 1950’s.  I’m sure there would have been some more conservative elements of the Church in the USA who was not happy about the Jesus Movement back near the end of the last century, others unhappy about John Wimber, others unhappy about ‘leaders’ of the ‘charismatic movement’ and even more about the goings on of the ‘Toronto Blessing’. And so it goes on through the Christian world; we keep getting confronted by those who are not ‘our people’. The trouble is that God doesn’t seem to have the same social (or spiritual) boundaries that we have!

A God of Provision:  Those gifts. They were expensive but they were the currency of the day across borders. Today we have to exchange currency. Then they had expensive products that could be sold for the local currency. That’s what these gifts were. They were God’s method of providing for the material needs of this little family. No doubt Joseph, as a carpenter, found local jobs to do to earn money but, although they don’t know it yet, they are going to have to flee to Egypt, and that means, if it was us, we’d go to the bank and get out some foreign currency, but the Wise Men were their ‘bank’. Wonderful! Now you couldn’t have seen that coming! And that’s what it is like so often when God provides:  it comes but you could never have guessed it was coming or rather from where it was going to come. Wonderful, but faith-stretching sometimes!

It is an amazing part of this story. Yes, it may have question marks over it, but the lessons ring out loud and clear for anyone who has ears to hear. May that be you and me.

10. Anticipation – the Magi

Focus on Christ Meditations: 10.  Anticipation – the Magi

Mt 2:1,2   Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

As I have started into this series, and slightly to my surprise, I have found my focus being directed to the mystery of the coming of Jesus Christ. We saw just a few examples of that in the prophecies of the Old Testament and as we come into the New, the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are major question marks, or even an air of mystery, over some of the things we so often take for granted in this story. And that is my biggest concern: that because the Nativity story has become so familiar to many of us, we lose the significance or mystery of what was going on.

To recap a little bit, if you had been around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth (and of course you would probably know nothing of his birth) you might have noticed this old man, probably thought of as a bit of an eccentric by many, who saw him hobble in (he’s an old man!!) each day and just sit around the temple courts. We would probably have written him off as an old man with nothing better to do than just sit and watch the crowds. Yes, there had also been that freaky prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who was also there daily, praying and prophesying and obviously fasting most of the time (no doubt, thin as a rake, we might say today).

Oh yes, the temple attracted the weirdoes, but that is all they are. And then we had the story of the shepherds. Well that was a bit farfetched, we might have thought if we had heard it third hand, a bit weird to say the least. But nothing has changed; life carries on as normal. If these characters were God’s PR people, there to spread the word, He might have chosen more credible people, and a lot more people for all that. So this couple with a baby came to the temple and went again and rumour has it that they have settled temporarily down there in Bethlehem. Life carries on in the Temple and in the local synagogues, focusing on Israel’s past, with the scrolls being brought out and read every Saturday. Life carries on as normal.

And then a camel train turns up in Jerusalem. Traders it might appear from the east. But no, these aren’t just ordinary traders, they appear philosophers, or astronomers or even astrologers; they are a bit weird. And they start asking around, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”  What? This is odd on various levels. A child-king has been born? Has Herod being keeping something to himself? But no, he seems as surprised as the rest of us. But then everyone jumps to a major conclusion: “King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.” (v.3,4) If there is an unheralded ‘Coming One’ is this the one our teachers have been identifying in the scrolls all these years, the Messiah or Christ?

The second strange thing about this is that claim to have been led here by a star in the sky? What? A star or a meteorite? Did they use other things to confirm this because they certainly believe what they are saying because they wouldn’t have clearly traveled hundreds of miles to get here if they didn’t!  But then there is a third strange thing about this. They are talking about wanting to worship this child. Look, we don’t worship Herod and as good Jews we don’t ‘worship’ anyone other than God, the I AM of Moses’ day. So what are you saying? In the eyes of these strange men, is this child a ‘god’ like the Romans have or the Greeks had? Surely not in Jerusalem of all places???? This is the city on the heart of the ’I AM’ and He wouldn’t tolerate anything like that. So when you come to worship a child, who or what are you saying this child is? But no one wants to speak out loud the logical answer to that because even though we have the Immanuel prophecy, the thought of divinity being in our midst is too much.

I have written on this before and every time I struggle as I write because I believe to those living at the time, this was mysterious, and we lose the mystery in familiarity. But everything about the coming of this child is strange, but then if he is God (somehow?) then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that God communicated this by His Holy Spirit, by Angels and now by strange (scientific?) seekers from the east.

But why all this ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff, this half hidden playing with us? Why not have a seriously scary meeting with Herod or the Chief Priest and scare them into submission as He tells them what He is doing? I was going to say that God doesn’t do scary but the angel scared the shepherds and we’ll see some more fear before we are finished with this Part. But mostly God doesn’t do scary, most of the time He wants to win our hearts with His love and He looks for honest responses, responses of the individual will, responses that are simple and open, responding to the wonder of His love, not His might. Relationships are built on love and that is what God wants.

These ‘wise men’, like Simeon, are those who have caught something in their spirits. God is up to something and they need to be in on the ground floor, that’s what their gut says, “I need to be there!”  In the case of both Simeon and the Magi, there is no letter from heaven to be read by the eyes and understood by the mind; no, this is down-in-my-spirit stuff that scares many of us. For some of us anything to do with the Spirit is scary because it sometimes challenges the intellect (As when Jesus said to Peter on the lake in the night, “Come”.)  If Simeon hadn’t responded to the Spirit, he would have missed seeing the baby. If the wise men had looked at their star and possibly other portents and said, “Yes, but it’s a long way,” they too would have missed seeing the baby. Would that have mattered? Not to the baby, maybe, but in their spirits, both Simeon and the Magi went away utterly satisfied, knowing who it as they had seen, and all around them were thousands of other people who couldn’t say that! There are some serious challenges here. Dare we face them?

2. Geography is important

Short Meditations in John 5:  2. Geography is important

Jn 5:2    Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.

Again and again I find I delight in simple details in scripture, details that if this was a made-up fairy story wouldn’t be there – in fact whoever would dream up these sorts of things? John is writing for people all over the world. By the time he is writing, the church has spread far and wide and so it is valid to suppose that one day this Gospel will be read all over the world. But it is an account of what happened in a particular part of the world and in specific places that had significance.

Jerusalem had significance in that it was the heart of Israel and the heart of Judaism. As we have noted previously Jesus went there expressly to celebrate the various Feasts of Moses. He no doubt went to various places in Jerusalem but this one stands out in John’s mind because of what happened there. But you and I, non-inhabitants of Jerusalem, would not know about this. It is a pool. We don’t know how big it is but John tells us that it is near the Sheep Gate, probably so named because it was a gate into the city near the temple where sheep would be brought in for sacrifice. Near the gate is a pool, possibly fed by the reservoir, a pool called Bethesda meaning ‘house of the olive’, again possibly a location so named because it was fertile and olive trees grew there (but we don’t know). It is surrounded by five arches or colonnades that would provide shelter from the weather for the poor and needy. That is the location for what is about to happen.

Places are important in the scriptures and they are important in our lives; they often go to explain why various things happen. In the previous chapter we noted Samaria and Galilee as distinct from Judea and the different attitudes that prevailed in respect of Jesus in each area. We noted Cana and Capernaum and the distance needing to be travelled and the distance over which the healing took place. All of these place names add significance.

But in our own lives, the nature of places also impact our lives as well as adding significance to them.  I can look back and remember various places where I have had significant encounters with the Lord, and although we perhaps should not place reliance on the place, we cannot help but attribute something of it to having access to the Lord, even though maybe the encounter relied more on the circumstances than on the place – but they happened there!  Places in Scripture also say, this did happen in this specific geographical location – it is real. So as you read your Bible, take note of places.

49. Mother Hen

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 49.  Mother Hen

Mt 23:37   how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Such a simple little analogy in stark contrast to all that has just been saying. Jesus, we might say today, has just torn a strip off the Pharisees in a major way with his seven ‘woe’s’. Everything he has just been saying comes as total condemnation and in that sense is most unusual from the mouth of Jesus, but he is not condemning the sinners, the riff-raff of society, they are what they are, but he condemns the spiritual and moral leadership of the nation of Israel that continues on in the same way their predecessors had done, rejecting God’s servants, the prophets, and are now rejecting His Son.

From the passages we read previously he continued on from, You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (v.33) by saying that his Father would yet send more prophets etc. but he knew that they too will be rejected by Israel (v.34). Therefore, they will be held accountable for all the blood that has been shed of righteous men, all the way from Abel to Zechariah (see Gen 4:8 and 2 Chron 24:20-22), servants of God killed by unrighteous men who were part of this ‘chosen people’. (v.35,36) And it will happen soon! (It happened in AD70 when Jerusalem and its occupants were utterly destroyed by the Romans in response to a rebellion).

When we get angry we often get carried away in a self-centred anguish but Jesus’ anger is softened by his yearning – and the yearning of the Godhead – for Jerusalem’s salvation: “O 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, but you were not willing.” (v.37) It is a cry from the heart of the Godhead who had brought Israel into being, watched over it through the centuries and watched over Jerusalem with anguish.

So look at the analogy: a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings. It is again a common picture for anyone in an agricultural community where chickens are kept. The eggs are hatched and the mother hen watches over her chicks and at night or at other times of threat she draws them close and covers them with her wings. It is an act of loving, caring, protection.

This is what Jesus felt about Jerusalem. God had been there for them throughout the centuries, yearning to bless them, care for them, provide for them and keep them secure, but time and time again they turned their back on Him and killed His prophets. He had longed to be a loving Father to them (or a mother hen) but they rejected him.

This analogy is one of pathos, that evokes sadness, sorrow and compassion. There is nothing hard hearted about Jesus at this point so, however strong the words had been of condemnation of the Pharisees, still the heart of God was one of sorrow and anguish and compassion for Jerusalem and its people, but they were too self-centred to see that and be moved by it, and so they would remain blind and hard-hearted and would be terminated as a city at the heart of a nation in AD70.

There is a remarkable ‘summary prophecy’ in Revelation 12 where a woman (Israel) has a son (Jesus) and there is a dragon (Satan) who seeks to destroy her and him and we read: “She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.” (Rev 12:5,6) That period of roughly three and a half years, corresponds to other such similar periods in prophecy and, as one commentator said, ‘became a conventional symbol for a limited period of unrestrained wickedness.’. But is it a set time (half of perfect 7) in God’s economy. There is nothing random about the length of Israel’s time ‘in the world’. Whether the formation of the new nation of Israel in the early part of last century was the end of that period or it is yet to come, remains to be seen.

Notice the words in that quote in respect of Israel, even after the destruction of Jerusalem and the nation in AD70, “a place prepared for her by God”. As with the Exile centuries before, God watched over this people, a people who so often brought anguish to His heart, and yet a people through whom He had chosen to reveal Himself to the world. Within it, there had been great men of God, within it there always had been a faithful remnant even though the majority may have turned away from Him. And so today, they continue to exist, still mostly rejecting their Messiah, but still within the purposes of God. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else on this planet, we might say, “Watch this space!”

What are the lessons that go with this little analogy? First, that God is patient and long-suffering and faithful to His word. Despite their ongoing rejection He still exhibits a yearning love for them.  Second, the sin and folly of mankind is epitomized in this people who, despite the wonder of all that was happening at the hands of Jesus in their midst, remained blind to that wonder. Third, although he will feel compassion, He will nevertheless hold His people accountable – Jew or Christian – and bring discipline where it is needed. Yet, fourth, His plan continues and He is not deterred. He is the God of the big-picture, the God of the long-term and He will fulfil His plans and purposes despite our failures, indeed He takes them into account and weaves them into His will. Worship Him!

39. Lamentations

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 39.  Lamentations

Lam 3:20-26    my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have 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.

Having just covered two of the mountain of prophecy, Isaiah ad Jeremiah, it would be easy just to move straight on to the third of those major prophets, Ezekiel, and completely forget this little song of anguish, especially as it is simply an anonymous poem that bewails the state of Jerusalem. (Tradition has it that it was written by Jeremiah but that is by no means certain.) Reading through Lamentations and finding these verses above, is like walking through the devastated, burnt out city and then suddenly, in a pile of charred ashes coming across a golden goblet. They are that because of the nature of what precedes them and what follows them. Describing these seven verses as a highlight of this book, is an understatement.

When we come to see the content of this little book we find both descriptions of the city itself and descriptions of what has happened to the people in it, as well as the reasons why all this happened. Let’s consider those three things before we look at the wonder of the seven verses above.

  1. The State of the City: How deserted lies the city.” (1:1) It is devoid of people. We are considering an empty set of ruins. “The LORD determined to tear down the wall around the Daughter of Zion. He stretched out a measuring line and did not withhold his hand from destroying. He made ramparts and walls lament; together they wasted away. Her gates have sunk into the ground; their bars he has broken and destroyed.” (2:8,9) “The walls and its gates are gone. Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets; my young men and maidens have fallen by the sword.” (2:21) There are corpses still in the streets. “Because of thirst the infant’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth; the children beg for bread, but no one gives it to them.” (4:4) The similarity of TV pictures of children in war torn countries does not escape us. the same picture continues, “Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as a stick. Those killed by the sword are better off than those who die of famine; racked with hunger, they waste away for lack of food from the field.” (4:8,9) Those who remain are in a terrible plight from famine and lack of water. And that is it! Actually this ISN’T a poem about the terrible physical state of Jerusalem; the physical state isn’t the thing that consumes the author, it only covers a small part of the book.
  2. What has happened to the People: We have had a tiny glimmer of this already as we have struggled to find records of the state of the city. “Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer.” (1:6) The royal family have fled into captivity. “All her people groan as they search for bread.” (1:11 See also 2:11,12,19,20, 4:4,9,10) Those people who are left, battle starvation but “My young men and maidens have gone into exile.” (1:18) i.e. the majority have been carried off into exile, but “The elders of the Daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have sprinkled dust on their heads and put on sackcloth. The young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.” (2:10) i.e. those who are left are utterly humbled. Prophets and priest who remain are as nothing (4:13-16) This disaster struck everyone – women, girls, princes, elders, young men, old men (5:11-14) – all were included. All of the elaborate feasts and special days of the Law have disappeared (1:4,10). All that is left is a meager quest for survival.
  3. Why it has happened: This is clearly a work of the Lord (1:12-15, 2:1-8,17,22). Yes, Nebuchadnezzar and his mighty army may have been the instrument that brought this destruction about, but ultimately he was simply the instrument in the hand of the Lord. And why? It happened “because of her many sins,” (1:5) and because of her spiritual and moral filthiness (1:8,9), even at the heart of the religious establishment, the priests and prophets (4:13). Yes it was the sin of the city (5:7,16).

Time and space precludes this exercise, but read through the book and catch the sense of how the reputation of Jerusalem in the eyes of the surrounding world has fallen. That encompasses all we have picked out above. The once glorious people of God sinned and sinned and sinned, and refused to repent. Thus God eventually (after many warnings) sent Nebuchadnezzar and Jerusalem was destroyed, many were killed, many more were taken off into captivity in Babylon, and those who were left, struggled to survive among the ruins. These are the things that consume the writer.

He is almost overwhelmed by them – and then we come to those words that fly in the face of all of this, words that have even been made into a modern song: “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.”  God is faithful? God is compassionate? But yes, because if He wasn’t He would have utterly wiped out Judah long ago. As it is, the majority have been carried off to a new life in Babylon where it appears they settled for forty years at least, before being returned to once again pick up the mantle of being God’s people, the people into whom He would bring His Son, some four hundred years or so later. Oh yes, God feels for this people but knows the best for them is being freed from idolatry and being returned to be ‘the people of God’ again, even if that does take decades. Their long-term history is all important and He remains faithful to His plans and purposes to bless the world through the people of Abraham (see Gen 12;1,2).

Yes, the writer recognizes what he feels – “my soul is downcast within me” – but he will not be brought down by it and so he turns away from that: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope,” and he declares the truth above and concludes, “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.” i.e. I will trust the Lord. He is good and He is compassionate and He is faithful. That is the truth and I will resist all lies the enemy might seek to bring me and instead I will be quiet before my Lord and remember these things.

Yes, there are times in life when all hell seems to break loose or the sky seems to fall on us and we sit there in the midst of the debris of what was once our quiet and pleasant and ordered life, devastated. Yes, it does happen in this fallen world. The causes for such things are many and varied but in the midst of them we must come back to that incredible revelation of the apostle Paul: “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28). Lord, I do love you and I know you called me with a purpose. I may not understand all that is happening at the present but I will hold to the truth: you are good, you are compassionate and you are faithful and I can trust in you. Amen!

24. Nehemiah

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 24.  Nehemiah

Neh 1:4-6   When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying.

Nehemiah is the counterpart book to Ezra except, while Ezra focuses on rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem, Nehemiah is about the rebuilding of the walls of the city, re-establishing it as a city.  We could have just cited verse 4 but it makes more sense to include the three verses for they really explain all that follows. The explanation for these verses comes in the one before it: Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.” (v.3) This is it in a nutshell: Nehemiah hears of the terrible physical state of Jerusalem and he is so moved by it that he can only pray and fast and mourn. It is because Nehemiah was so moved that the rest follows.

If we were to follow the same analogy as we used with Ezra, it is not filled with so many ‘fireworks’ as Ezra although the pattern is similar. Chapter 1 is about Nehemiah’s reaction to the news about Jerusalem and getting the king’s permission to return, and chapter 2 is about his journey back and secret inspection of the walls as he desires to make plans but without yet making it public. At the end of that chapter we get the first inkling of opposition that is going to arise against his plans: “But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” (Neh 2:19) Mockery and suggestion of treason are the first shots fired.

Chapter 3 lists off the sections of the wall being rebuilt and who is involved in each section but no sooner has that been done than the threats against them really start in earnest in chapter 4. In  verse 1 to 3 mockery is again employed and we see Nehemiah turn to prayer yet again: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face ofA the builders,” (4:4,5) and we then read, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” (v.6) No prophecy, just prayer. And so the conflict carries on: the opposition plot an attack (4:7,8) Prayer was the response yet again (v.9).  Yet problems with the work and the possible enemy attack continue (v.10-23) but with obvious wisdom they overcame.

In chapter 5 the next problem Nehemiah had to overcome was an internal one, involving complaints by those who were poor (v.1-5), canceling debts against them (v.5-13), and Nehemiah’s good example (v.14-19). Chapter 6 sees the opposition seeking to distract and possibly kill Nehemiah (6:1,2) but he refused to be drawn away (v.3,4). When this ploy had failed four times, the enemy sent him a letter claiming a plot by those in Jerusalem to make Nehemiah king and to rebel against the king and demanding that they meet together (v.5-8), but Nehemiah resisted and prayed again (v.8,9). He then had to resist false prophecy (v.10-13) and prays yet again (v.14) with the result that the wall rebuilding was completed (v.15). So, although the book has 13 chapters, it is only the first 6 that are given over to the subject of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

So what is significant about all this? Various things come to mind. First walls delineate boundaries of a city. Until the walls were rebuilt the occupants of the city would be vulnerable to intruders. The fact of broken down walls spoke of the years of shame and they were best put behind them. God had brought them back, it was a new day! Walls enabled the city to be identified as a distinct city.  Second, this is a story of a spiritually sensitive man. Nehemiah recognized the significance of the broken down walls in this new day and he recognized that this had been God’s city and now it is a shame. It was his heart anguish that provoked action. Third, this is a story of a man of prayer. I have underlined above the word ‘prayer’ and you will see it occurs again and again. Whenever something went wrong, whenever the enemy rose up against them, he prayed. What an example!  Fourth, it is a story that involves opposition, those who took it on themselves to mock and deride the people of God and even plot to come against them and then schemed to bring about their downfall. (Yet, it is interesting that in reality it is all talk and physical opposition never occurred!)

Now what does this say to us today? First, are we aware today of the state of the Church, when it is often almost impossible to distinguish between people inside the church and those outside it?  The ‘walls’ are the things that should mark out the Church as different from the world around it, in a good way – holiness, righteousness, honesty, integrity, love, compassion, obedience to the word of God.

Second, are they clearly visible and if not, are we moved by that? The challenge is there to ask whether we have hearts that are moved by the honour or disgrace of the Lord’s name as expressed by the church in our land today. It was in that period that the prophet Haggai asked, “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. you have spent much time on your own homes, but what about the house of God? Yes, that was about the temple but no doubt the same could have been said about the walls and therefore we might ask about the state of the Church today. We are called ‘the temple of the Lord’ so what state is the temple in and are we moved by it?

Third, are we people of prayer for whom it is automatic to turn to the Lord whenever any difficulty arises, any opposition occurs to the outworking of the kingdom of God? Is our prayer life a demonstration of our reliance upon the Lord? Is it the natural direction for us to turn, not only in times of need, but also in times of plenty when we should be grateful?

Fourth, are we aware of the opposition of the enemy, aware that we are in a spiritual battle that will only be won by those who hearts are knit with His, who seek Him regularly and are open and obedient to His leading. Are we aware of the strategies of the enemy – temptation, deception and outright attack – that need countering by faith. These, I believe, are some of the challenges that arise here, challenges that are equally pertinent today as in Nehemiah’s day.

23. Ezra

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 23.  Ezra

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:

I find the book of Ezra is like a firework display, not one of these amazing modern displays you see at New Year in capitals of the world, but the more amateurish ones with a rocket going up, darkness, a blaze of light and colour, darkness, more startling colour and light, darkness, and so on.  Our starting verse is the reason for all that follows. It is the launch firework and it brings a continuation, being a repeat of the closing verses of 2 Chron, the amazing move of God on king Cyrus that released Israel to return to their land to rebuild the Temple (that is what Ezra is all about) and then rebuild the city and its walls (that is what Nehemiah that follows on is all about). After the darkness of forty years silence while Israel remain in exile, suddenly these two rockets, Ezra and Nehemiah blaze out and then after the accompaniment of some of the minor prophets, darkness falls again for over four hundred years until John the Baptist appears on the scene.

So Cyrus makes provision for people to return, with wealth to help them (Ch.1), and lists are provided of those who returned (Ch.2) some 50,000 people all together. And so the work of restoration begins (Ch.3) and the next amazing firework bursts upwards: With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.” (3:11-13) A time of immense celebration that evokes different responses according to generation. Understandable.

But then darkness falls. The enemies of Israel come (4:1) and offer to help build, but they are aliens who were imported into the Land long back, and Israel decline their offer. But the darkness continues: “Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.” (4:4) And so it continued: “At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem…and .. wrote a letter to Artaxerxes,” (4:6,7) and the king replied, “Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order,” (4:21) and so, “Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (4:24) Thus chapter 4 is a chapter of darkness as far as the rebuilding is concerned.

But then up goes a rocket which bursts into great light: “Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them,” (5:1) and the light that came with the word of God, released faith so that, “Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, helping them.” (5:2)

But then comes a moment of darkness: “At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to them and asked, “Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and restore this structure?” (5:3) and they send a letter, a very honest and complete letter (see 5:6-17),  to king Darius asking that this be checked out. Meanwhile a Catherine Wheel of light continues to splay out light: “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.” (5:5)

Eventually the king investigates and confirms that the word had been authorized by Cyrus. Suddenly another great display bursts into the darkness that had been hanging there: “Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop.” (6:1-8) and further reinforces this initial order with instructions that severe punishment will be meted out on anyone who disregards it. (see 6:9-12) It is awesome!

There is a moment’s pause and then one very bright rocket bursts upwards: “The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” (6:15) It is almost exactly seventy years since the Temple was destroyed and it has taken three and a half years to rebuild. There then follows an enormous and varied display as there are great celebrations at the dedication of the Temple (6:16-18) and they then celebrate the Passover (6:19-22).

After a pause a new firework bursts into the sky. It is the arrival of Ezra, a great, great, great etc. grandson of Aaron. (7:1-6) It is quite amazing that throughout the period of their exile, people like Ezra had managed to keep to their priestly role and learn the Law so they could pass it on to future generations. There are more bursts of light: “He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him… Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” (v.6,10)

But then sky is filled with light as the present king, Artaxerxes, sends a letter of commission which is truly amazing. (Read it in 7:11-22) and the chapter finishes with a peon of praise from Ezra himself for what the Lord has done (7:27,28). The remaining chapters, if we may conclude our picture language is one long burst of light as we observe Ezra’s administration and then his reforms that bring a great public affirmation that they are indeed still the Lord’s people!

What is the big lesson from this book? It is that although the Lord may provide great vision and release great faith for us to achieve His purposes, the enemy will seek to rise up again and again but, as the ministries of the (now) body of Christ operate and the word and faith are released, the obstacles and hindrances and attacks will be overcome. This calls for us to hold to the vision of the kingdom of God and the body of Christ, and to remain faithful to Him, to seek Him and listen to Him, be empowered and directed by Him, and as we are obedient to His leading, triumph!  Hallelujah! (PS. Sorry, the one verse highlight turned into a book highlight!)

21. 1 Chronicles

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 21.  1 Chronicles

1 Chron 17:16,17   Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and he said: “Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men, O LORD God.

Verses can stand out for different reasons. These verses stand out, I believe, because they both reveal David’s humility and God’s oversight. In going into Chronicles we backtrack on history for this part of scripture covers from a different perspective the matters covered in 2 Samuel. David has become king and is settled in Jerusalem, and the ark of the covenant has eventually been brought into Jerusalem and is located in a tent. David has it in mind to build a house for the ark and God, a temple, but Nathan the prophet brings him a word to the effect that his son will do it and not him. Now that might have been a real downer if it wasn’t for the fact that in the word that Nathan brings to him there are many encouragements about Israel’s future and that of his chosen son. Read the passage in 1 Chron 17:7-14.

Note it concludes with a promise: When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron 17:11-14)   Now, note within that a) the promise of an eternal throne, b) father and son intimacy with God, c) a kingdom over all others that d) will last for ever.

Now of course from our perspective today we can see that such promises apply to the coming of Jesus and his bringing the kingdom of God on earth that will last for ever. From David’s perspective it is just mind blowing and it is this which provokes his response in our starter-verses: Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men, O LORD God.”

Yes, the Lord has reminded him that he has been brought from looking after sheep on the hillside and been made king and if that wasn’t amazing enough the thought of him ushering in through his family, a kingdom that will be greater than any other on earth – and eternal!  – just blows him away.

Now let’s think about this some more.  First of all, David is aware of his humble background and he completely accepts that he is where he is today because of the Lord. David’s story shows very clearly that he is a man who knows the Lord and has relied upon him through thick and thin – and there have been seriously difficult times along the way!

The second thing to note is that he now struggles to accept what the Lord has said about him, and in this sense these verses stand out as examples of what so many of us struggle with. I have been privileged to bring many personal prophetic words to people and in line with the apostle Paul’s teaching I hope they have always come for “strengthening, encouragement and comfort,” (1 Cor 14:3) and so often I have watched the responses of those to whom such words come and so often they are, “Me? Who am I that you should say this?”

The third thing to note is that David cannot, from his limited view of history, comprehend the future. And neither can we. When the Lord speaks a word of encouragement about our future we cannot see from this present perspective how that will work out. We need to remind ourselves that for that end product to come about there needs to be a process, the Lord working in us, through us and around us to fulfil the things upon His heart. He knows what He wants to achieve and how He wants to do it and, more often than not, it doesn’t come with a flash of lightning, it comes over a long period of time, bringing many changes along the way. When Zechariah heard his wife was to conceive in old age, he struggled with it, basically in unbelief. When Mary heard she was to have a child without the help of a man, her response was, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38) She didn’t know how such a thing could happen and so she just trusted God to do it as the angel had said.

Perhaps behind all this, there is a fourth thing to be noted and it is the fact that the Lord would not let David build the Temple, but had to leave it to his son. For what ever reason, the Lord knows we are not the people for some things but, on the other hand, He knows what we are good to achieve and that is why we find ourselves gifted in some ways but not in others in the body of Christ. We may marvel, like David, that God has chosen to do wonderful things in and through us, bringing about changes that years back we could never has dreamed of, and we may praise Him for what He reveals of His plans for us, and then play out part in bringing it about, but we also need to rest in who we are in the body – yes, available for greater things, but not striving with inadequacy that mourns that we are not like someone else. Be who God calls you to be and rejoice in it.