28. Expectations Recap 3

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 28. Expectations Recap 3

We have come to the end of this part of the series that took us through historical characters in the Old Testament and concluded at the beginning of the Gospels with Simeon. From now on we will consider expectations in the more familiar form of ‘hope’ that is now part of our Christian lives as a result of the work of Jesus. But before we do that, we will do what we have done twice before in this series and have a Recap to cover those studies since Recap 2, to highlight and hold on to the key points that have been made in these latter studies.

In the studies prior to this we had seen David chosen by Samuel, David having to wait some time for the fulfilment of that anointing to become king, and David slaying Goliath. Moving on from there we then considered the growing awareness that David had that he was in fact there by the working of God. We saw that we can have expectations formed by a word from God coming but, very often, the ‘vision’ has to die as we wait for the Lord to bring it about. Once He starts bringing it into fulfilment, we then have the challenge of believing that is what is happening and cooperating with Him in that.  We realise that our earlier expectations were real but now they become more concrete, we might say.

Following David, we then considered his son, Solomon who, as his father was clearly in his last days, first worked at removing remaining ‘belligerents’ from the previous reign and then, when confronted by the Lord in a dream, recognised the difficulty of the task before him and his need of the Lord’s wisdom, which had then been granted him. Solomon’s expectations of the future before him as the king following in his father’s footsteps were quite realistic. He knew it would be difficult and he recognised his need. We asked the question whether we too recognise the need for the Lord’s wisdom in our lives as we look forward to the things before us.

As we watched the dividing of the kingdom after Solomon died, we considered that variety of expectations that people have of God and suggested that it was inadequate expectations of God that were behind all that happened in both the northern and southern kingdoms. The north stumbled over idol worship and never recovered from it. We saw the number of times the Lord spoke into the situation but His determination was to divide the kingdom after Solomon’s disobedience, and pondered on reasons why it should be. The primary reason seems to be to double the chances of future kings getting it right. The opportunities of Israel – north or south – to get it right with God, were thus doubled. The tragedy is that both kingdoms failed to get it right. It was, therefore, also a double opportunity for sin to be revealed through these two kingdoms and perhaps as we compare them as we read about them, their failures are accentuated in the comparison. We also noted that an observation of history reveals that what we see in Israel is repeated again and again in the nations of the world. Sin is clearly the motivating force behind multiple wars at national or international level and family divisions at individual level.

Jumping to the end of the existence of the southern kingdom, the north having passed away long before, we saw Jeremiah speaking to the nation in the years running up to the exile and pondered on the folly of the nation that (unlike the rest of the world) had amazing records of their dealings with God through well over three centuries, and marvelled that they obviously disregarded or forgot these. These was a people who had received prophetic words galore and who knew what was expected of them after they had entered into the covenant with God at Sinai.  Although words of hope were brought through Jeremiah, the main thrust of his ministry had been a call to repent. He laid out clear cut expectations of what would happen if they failed to heed him, but nevertheless their lived in deception with the expectation that it would be ‘all right’. It wasn’t.

Staying with Jeremiah we observed the circumstances that rolled out in the final destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the life of freedom that was granted to Jeremiah by the Babylonians. We saw how a remnant gathered after the Babylonians had left, leaving behind a governor, and we saw how some of that remnant killed the governor and then made everyone decamp to Egypt despite Jeremiah bringing a clear warning against doing that. It is a story that tells us that even if we are God’s servants, the ways of this fallen world may carry us into circumstances we wished we didn’t have. But the biggest lesson, as we watch Jeremiah continue to prophesy in Egypt, is the call to faithfulness regardless what we expect of the days to come. As a subtext to that story, is the awareness that in this fallen world, changing hearts does not come easily and often it seems, it is only the pressures of trials and tribulations that will truly change a heart towards God.

Following the years of the exile, we recognised that humanly speaking Israel’s expectations of the future had diminished to zero unless they heard and believed Jeremiah’s ‘seventy years’ prophecy. It was possible to maintain good expectations for the future only if they held on to God’s recent word to them. We are not called to have faith built on the obvious, because more often than not, the Lord does not reveal how He will bring about that which appears impossible to us at the moment. Israel could not have foreseen the coming of Cyrus and God’s ability to move on him and get him to send Israel back to their land to rebuild the temple. Similarly for us, we have to recognise that we may have expectations from the Lord in the form of personal prophecy, but more often than not we will not have a clue how that can come about, but it will. You cannot foresee a miracle! That is the shortcoming if expectations!

The years passed and then a man named Nehemiah heard the state of Jerusalem. Yes, the temple had been rebuilt but basically the city was still a demolition site. His heart was moved in anguish and the end result is Nehemiah back in Jerusalem rebuilding the walls of the city.  The expectations of the majority did not include the rebuilding of the city. It was down to one man to have such a hope and, we believe with God’s support, he brought it about. The expectations of just one person can change history; such is the significance of the individual – you or me? The Lord looks for those who will stand in the gap, who will intercede, or who will step up to serve, people who say we do not just have to accept the status quo if it runs contrary to God’s heart.

And so we eventually arrived at the New Testament and bedded these historical reflections of expectations of men or women of the Old Testament, and we did it with, again, just one man, Simeon, a man who was righteous and devout, a man of the Spirit, a man open to the leading of the Spirit and a man that God used to encourage His two servants, Mary and Joseph. Again, and we must emphasise it, it was just one man in Israel who was alert to the purposes of God being unfolded before him. He challenges us to be people who, similarly, will have our eyes and our hearts open to be alert for the moving of God.

Each of this last set of studies since the last Recap, have been about individuals:

  • David, who began to realise that the expectations he had as a result Samuel’s anointing, were now starting to be fulfilled.
  • Solomon, who realised that with the task of leading the nation before him, he needed the wisdom of God to match the expectations that he had of that role.
  • The two kings who caused the kingdom to be divided, whose expectations of God were too low, so that they failed to heed the opportunity to be godly kings.
  • Jeremiah, the faithful prophet of God in all the years running up to the destruction of Jerusalem, who recognised that his expectations for the future of the nation depended entirely on how the kings would respond to God’s word. One way – repentance – would result in future hope and continuation. The other way – rejection – would result in destruction and restoration only seventy years in the future.
  • Jeremiah, again the faithful prophet, but prophesying to the remnant escaping to Egypt. His expectations were not to do with his end but with his ability to keep on being the mouthpiece of God, wherever he was. His expectations were all about faithfulness.
  • Cyrus, who came to understand he could be God’s means of His people returning to their land and rebuilding the temple, an expectation probably no one else had had before that!
  • Nehemiah, one man whose expectations flowed against the general tide of acceptance of the status quo, a man whose heart moved him into dangerous territory to fulfil a hope that surely was based on the heart of God.
  • Simeon, another man on his own, who set his heart towards God and caught the heart of God as He brought His Son to the temple, so that His servants could be encouraged. Simeon’s expectations were based on the heart of God and thus caught the move of God.

This is the message of this last set of studies: individuals are important in the kingdom of God and the expectations we have of God are all-important: that we are called by God with a purpose, to achieve that purpose we need His wisdom, His power and His leading, that is at the heart of godliness, called to be witnesses to Him, to remain faithful regardless of what anyone else may be doing, open to Him to do what only He can do – a miracle to open a door or fulfil a vision, called to have hearts that can be moved by Him, called to be Spirit-people who can be led by Him, people who are called to achieve the impossible  because we are simply vessels of God. May we learn these things.

 

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.

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.

Walk of Assessment (2)

WALKING WITH GOD. No.42

Neh 2:11,12 I went to Jerusalem , and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.

Earlier on in this series we considered a walk of assessment in the light of Joshua’s encounter with the commander of the Lord’s army, but the ‘assessment’ that we now consider is very different. With Ezra’s people we considered the significance of the restoration of the Temple , the place of encounter with God. Years have passed and another phase of restoration is in the Lord’s mind, the restoration of the city of Jerusalem , or to be more precise, its walls.

When Nehemiah had heard of the state of Jerusalem he had felt anguish and had wept (Neh 1:4). Subsequently he prayed (Neh 1:5-11) and then petitioned the king (Neh 2:1-8) and gained his approval to return to Jerusalem to restore the city. The only problem was the presence in Samaria of Sanballat the governor and his Ammonite associate, Tobiah, who were opposed to the Jews returning and re-establishing themselves. They seem to have had a lot of say in what went on in this far flung tiny province of the empire. First of all he checks in with the ‘governors of Trans-Euphrates‘ (2:9), those in overall charge of the whole area, under whom he will work as governor of Judah. Next he makes his way to Jerusalem and, note, he has so far kept the true purpose of his arrival from anyone in the locality, because he is aware of the political setup and doesn’t want to antagonise anyone and create opposition to his plan to rebuild the city walls.

After he has been there three days, he quietly goes out at night to survey the walls. So far he has shown no interest in them, but if he is to do anything about them he has to see the extent of the task. Initially this was a mounted ride but it appears that because of the rubble he probably had to dismount and it turns into a walk of assessment. Now what is significant about this particular walk, why are we considering it at all? Well the Temple was the sign of the permanent establishing of a place of encounter with God, but for there to be encounter and for there to be Temple service, there needs to be people. For there to be people there needs to be a community and for there to be a community there needs to be security – walls and gates! The significance of Nehemiah being there is that he is there to establish a secure community of God’s people in the place of encounter with God. Walls also delineate the edge of the city and the beginning of the world outside. They establish the size and shape of the community. What Nehemiah is doing is assessing the present state of the security of the community so as to be able to formulate a strategy for restoring it. This is all about restoring and establishing the people of God. Yes, they have been there a number of years since Cyrus sent the first ones back to restore the Temple , but no one has taken the trouble of establishing the security of the community.

How can this possibly have any application to us in the twenty first century? Well the people of God, and that may include my own family, are still in a world where there is a spiritual war going on and where Satan seeks to deceive and pull down. There is still a question of security that is both individual and corporate. Ask the question first of all, “How secure am I?” Well first of all am I secure in the certainty of God’s love for me? “For I am convinced that (nothing!) will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38 ,39). Paul was so sure that with God being for us (8:31) then no one and nothing can snatch us out of God’s hand. But there is another aspect to this. Remember Jesus told a parable of two house builders (Mt 7:24 -27), the point of which is that you will only stand firm if you obey and do what Jesus says. Oh yes, God will do everything to protect us and make us secure, but our role is to obey all that Jesus says to us through his word and his Spirit.

How about my family? What do we do to ensure they know the Lord and are secure in Him? This is about teaching our children the truths of God’s word, being an example for them, encouraging them into the life of the church where they can encounter that living truth? What about our church? Are we a Bible-based, Spirit-led community of God’s people? It is only as we are fed with the word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us and fill us, will we be secure in God. Are we the community of love that Jesus commanded (Jn 13:34 etc.)? Is there such a bond of love between us that it builds us together so that we are secure? If it is so, if one member is attacked the others will be there for them.

Part of our walk with God is to be a walk of awareness – a walk aware of the enemy, our vulnerability and our resources in Christ. But a part of our walk is to be a walk of assessment, to ‘check the walls of security’ to ensure we are doing all we can to be established and secure in Him. Have you walked that walk of assessment recently, have you checked yourself out, you family and your church? Check it out.