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Ezra, Part 2

800px-Second_TempleFifty-eight years have passed since the return of the first group of Jewish pilgrims to their homeland. The throne of Persia transferred from Xerxes to Artaxerxes, the latter being as favorably disposed to Jewish return to Jerusalem as was Cyrus, who initiated the migration of the Jews back to their homeland. A pious Levite named Ezra approached the king with a proposal that would empower him to lead a delegation to Jerusalem, a proposal that was enthusiastically endorsed by the king (note the official decree recorded in Ezra 7:11-26). Ezra readily acknowledged that these events were all made possible because “the good hand of his God was upon him” (7:9). The circumstances surrounding the dangerous 1000-mile trip and the events that transpired upon his arrival in Jerusalem are recorded in Ezra, chapters 7-10.

Samuel Shultz, The Old Testament Speaks (Pg 266)¸has given a helpful summary of the chronology of the events recorded in Ezra 7:1-10:44.

Nisan (first month)

1-3 – encampment by the river Ahava

4-11 – preparation for the journey

12 – beginning of the journey to Jerusalem

Ab (fifth month)

1st day of this month they arrive in Jerusalem

Kislev (ninth month)

Public assembly called in Jerusalem after Ezra is informed about mixed marriages

Tabeth (tenth month)

Beginning of examination of guilty parties and ending of the 1st day of Nisan

Upon his arrival, Ezra joyfully entrusts the provision for the Temple to those already leading the Temple activities (8:24-30) along with the distribution of the royal edict that empowers the community to reinforce Temple worship. All is well until the opening scene of chapter 9, when Ezra discovers a serious breach of the Law of Moses that threatens the very existence of the Jewish community. The Jewish people have intermarried with foreigners. One need only to reflect back to the beginning of the problems of Israel to understand how abhorrent this practice was. When Solomon married foreign wives, they turned his heart away from God and he began to worship false gods and practice idolatry. God’s people had just survived a 70-year exile as discipline for rampant idolatry. Now, the reorganized community, fragile as it was, dared to tread these waters again!! Ezra was appalled and he called the community to prayer and fasting. An examination of the people revealed a list of priests, Levites, and laity, totaling 114, was guilty of intermarriage.  Among the eighteen guilty priests were close relatives of Joshua, the high priest, who had returned with Zerubabbel 50 years earlier.  In fact, a comparison of Ezra 10:18-22 with Ezra 2:36-39 revealed that none of the orders of returning priests were free of intermarriage.  Ezra reacted with such self-castigation and confession, that included himself as being among the transgressors, that his behavior became contagious throughout the community.

Representatives from the community initiated a resolution to this situation, which was enthusiastically affirmed by the community as a whole, and the marriages were annulled.  A few comments on these events are appropriate.

First, a wise pastor once said, “Lumber stacked in a lumber yard begins to rot at the top.” With this comment he implied that the weakening and eventual disintegration of the community of faith usually begins with its leaders. Leaders, beware!

Second, grass-roots involvement in reform is necessary to bring about change. Leaders who impose their “clout” seldom accomplish their goal. It has been rightfully said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Again, leaders beware.

Third, leaders who lead by example do not need to ask people to follow. Their godly behavior will be all that is needed. Identification with the community, even in its sin, brings about commitment in repentance. Finally, leaders, take note.

The Prophecy of Ezekiel, Part 4

In his book, Courageous Leadership, (Zondervan, 2002, ) Bill Hybels writes these words: “The local church is the hope of the world and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders.” (Pg 27). Over the last ten or fifteen years or so, there has been a plethora of books and journal articles on the skills and techniques of leadership and how leaders who have and employ them influence governments, organizations, corporations and churches. The impact of leaders is undeniable. Hybels says it well. The future is shaped by leaders.

This fact is nowhere more visible than in the biblical history of Israel. As we have seen, the kings of the Northern and Southern Kingdom either led God’s people into the experience of God’s blessing or God’s curse. I cannot leave the prophecy of Ezekiel without a comment on the importance of leadership in the community of God’s people. The prophet delivers a message to the “shepherds” of Israel that should speak to the heart of every teacher, small group leader, pastor or denominational leader. Please notice two paragraphs from chapter 34.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. (Eze 34:2-6 NIV)

In these verses God makes it clear that leaders are not given their role in order to satisfy and promote themselves. They are to put those they lead first. They are to feed, strengthen, heal, search for the wayward, and tenderly nurture those they lead. And most importantly, they are to promote community in order to protect them from the wild enemies who seek to devour them. But all of the kings of the Northern Kingdom and many of the kings of the Southern Kingdom miserably failed in this calling. I believe the OT so carefully preserved these failures because God wants to make it clear that no human person, no matter how devoted or skillful, can adequately lead God’s people unless he recognizes that he is an understudy of the ultimate Shepherd. Ezekiel forcefully delivers this message.

As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Eze 34:12-16 NIV)

As I suggested during my previous comments on this book, the promises of God appear to reflect a life well beyond any earthly existence. Yet in this case, he makes a very earthly promise.

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken. (Eze 34:23-24 NIV)

The inauguration of this earthly promise was established in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will be further developed with his second coming and reign during the Millennium (Phil 2:9-11). But during this age, God has put the Chief Shepherd of our Souls (1 Peter 2:25) in charge of his people and all earthly leaders among them are his under-shepherds. What a privilege – and what a responsibility. Shame on any leader who exalts himself or herself. Shame on any leader who prospers while those being led are in want. But those who depend on him for wisdom, strength, perseverance, insight, discernment, and yes, brokenness and humility, can look forward to the words of affirmation from God himself – ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Pastor Hybels hit the nail on the head. I close with a question adopted from a well-known insurance commercial, “Is your church in good hands?”

  1. Read 1 Peter 5:1-4. If you are a leader, how are you fulfilling this position description?
  2. Read Hebrews 13:7. Are you a leader whose life can be imitated by those you lead?
  3. Read Hebrews 13:17. Are you contributing to the ministry of those who lead you so that their ministry is a joy or are you contributing to their hardship?

Book of Kings, Part 2

The Books of Kings are so named for the leaders of Israel, monarchs who rule the people. But as the office of king becomes firmly established, the office of prophet rises to greater prominence. No leader is without accountability, and the prophets of the LORD provide that accountability for Israel’s kings, both in the north and the south. Today I want to discuss the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, two prophets who spoke to the kings of the north. Later, we will spend time surveying the messages of the writing prophets, both to the north and to the south.

A particularly low point in the history of the Northern Kingdom is the reign of the kings of the Omri dynasty (1 Kings 16 – 2 Kings 1). Omri showed great skill in establishing relations with foreign nations, often through marriages with the daughters of foreign leaders. One such pact was with the King of Sidon, who gave his daughter, Jezebel, to the son of Omri, Ahab. But all did not turn out well in these types of marriages, as the earlier example of Solomon attests. In this case, Jezebel was an ardent worshipper of Baal and when Ahab became king after his father, he built shrines to Baal all over the north in order to please his wife. In response, the prophet Elijah appears on the scene and challenges Ahab to cleanse the nation from the worship of Baal. When he refuses, God, through the preaching of Elijah, sends a devastating drought on the north. A classic confrontation ensues when Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a showdown on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). Elijah challenges Ahab, and those who are present, to make a decision, reminiscent of the challenge of Joshua in Joshua 24. If Baal is God, serve him. But if the LORD is God serve him (Vs. 21). To carry out the challenge, Elijah built an altar for sacrifice and the prophets of Baal have the first opportunity to call down fire from heaven on their sacrifice, which would authenticate their god. But after several hours of feverish religious ceremony, there is no fire from heaven. Now it is Elijah’s turn. In order to make his point, the prophet brings barrels of water from the nearby Mediterranean Sea and soaks the sacrifice and the altar. Then, in confident prayer, Elijah calls for the LORD to show his power. Immediately fire from heaven consumes, not only the sacrifice, but the altar and the excess water as well. When all the people see this display of the LORD’s power,  they fall down and declare, “The LORD, he is God.” (Vs. 39). Then they seize the prophets of Baal and Elijah puts them to death. Elijah then leads Ahab back to the capital in an apparent procession of victory, only to be met with the revengeful anger of the queen, who brings destruction upon herself when threats against the prophet become her own death sentence.

Even with this decisive blow to the idolatry of Israel, Baal worship persists in the north. Elijah and his successor, Elisha, carry on their ministry by performing miracles that demonstrate God’s power over the false gods associated with Baal worship. They overcome drought (18:41-46), hunger (17:8-16), thirst (2 Kings 2:19-22), debt (4:1-7), infertility (4:11-17), disease (5:1-19), and death (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37). All of these areas of life were held to be under the control of the gods of Baal. Through Elijah and Elisha, God graciously demonstrated to the people that he was sovereign and worthy of sole allegiance and worship. Their actions were a strong message to the wayward kings that they were leading their nations down the fast track to God’s judgment.

By the extensive space given to Elijah and Elisha in the middle of the books of Kings, the importance of prophets in Israel is stressed, prophets who functioned as the voice of the LORD in order to hold Israel’s monarchs accountable to God’s Word.

There is no direct parallel to the relationship between kings and prophets in non-theocratic nations of the modern era. There are no kings who rule in God’s name and there are no prophets who speak to them as God’s voice. However, the principle of accountability remains. It is easy for someone who is in a position of authority to become consumed with his/her own significance. Even those who are not leaders (although all of us lead in some area of life) would benefit from having someone speak into their lives to call them to live in accordance to God’s Word. How about you? Do you have such a relationship? Pray right now that God would give you a trusted accountability partner or small group to help keep you on track with the LORD.

  1.  A good definition of accountability is “Helping someone keep their commitments to God.” How does this definition guide us away from standing in judgment over someone or of being prideful in speaking into the life of a brother or sister in Christ?
  2.  Read 1 Cor 11:1. How do we model a life that gives us the privilege of being an accountability partner for another believer?
  3. Read 2 Tim 3:15-16. What is our authority? What are the four steps of speaking into the life of another believer?

Books of Samuel, Part 1

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, that were originally one book, continue the story of the emergence of the nation of Israel from being a loosely organized confederacy, where everyone did that which was right in his own eyes, to a united kingdom that wholeheartedly followed YHWH under the leadership of the king after God’s own heart.

The narrative begins with a barren woman and a barren nation (The Drama of Scripture: Bartholomew and Goheen, Baker Academic 2004, pg 88). The woman is Hannah who cries out to the Lord because she has not conceived and given birth to a child. Likewise, the Israelites, who are not producing the fruit of obedience to the covenant of God, are crying out to the Lord because of the oppression from the Philistines. The prayers of both are answered with the birth of Samuel. Like Sampson, the last judge described in Judges, Samuel is a Nazarite (1:11; 24-28). Unlike Sampson, Samuel is a genuine servant of the Lord who faithfully leads the nation as the last judge and first prophet (7:15). A pivotal moment in the life of Israel comes when they approach Samuel requesting a king. At first glance this seems to be consistent with the Law of Moses, (Gen 49:10; Deut 17:14-20), but as the narrative quickly reveals, the motives of the people were less than honorable to God.

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders.  The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba.  But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.  So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.  They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  (1Sa 8:1-5 NIV)

This is so reminiscent of the behavior of this people of Israel from the very beginning. Instead of being separate from the nations, Israel wanted to be like the nations. What a lesson for the Christian church of our day! As such, Samuel becomes the last judge and the most prominent prophet, as he is given the duty of anointing the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. Saul’s reign is described in 1 Samuel 13-15, which turned out to be a time of disappointment for the monarchy. Although he starts out well, it isn’t long before his true colors emerge. As he was preparing for war against the Philistines, Saul impatiently assumed the priestly role, offering the sacrifice, a ministry that was strictly reserved for Samuel. Not long afterwards, Saul disobeyed a direct command from the Lord by disregarding the rules of YHWH war after God gave him victory over the Amalekites. Saul turned out to be a man with no heart for God. In his place, Samuel anointed David, a man with a whole heart for God. Following the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, David accomplished reconciliation between the tribes loyal to the house of Saul and the tribes loyal to the house of David (a reconciliation that turned out to be short lived). 2 Samuel describes the reign of David over the united kingdom in Jerusalem for 33 years (he ruled Judah from Hebron for 7). But David was not a man without his faults. One of the most well-known stories in all of Scripture is his adulterous encounter with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband (2 Samuel 11-12). (I’ll elaborate on this story later this week.) Consistent with God’s ethics, the consequences of David’s action are substantial. The child conceived in this illicit union died and David’s future son, Absalom, led an unsuccessful coup that left David’s reputation tarnished and his leadership questioned. However, 2 Samuel concludes with the account of a famine in Israel and God granting a positive answer to David’s prayer for relief, a sure sign of continued blessing on David by the LORD.

The books of Samuel describe three leaders:  Samuel, a man who listened to God’s Word; Saul, a man who listened to his own heart; and David, a man who hungered after God’s heart. The story of David concludes with the image of the dying leader reminiscing about his life on earth.

The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: ‘When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God,  he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth. (2Sa 23:3-4 NIV)

All of us are leaders – all of us in our homes, some of us in industry, some of us in education, some of us in health care, some of us in politics, and some in our neighborhoods. Pray right now that you might lead in righteousness and in the fear of God and that you might be the light of the morning sunshine and brightness that renews the earth after a rain.

  1. Read Proverbs 1:1-7. What pursuit fosters righteous leadership?
  2. Read 2 Timothy 4:6-8. How might these thoughts motivate us to finish strong and not just begin strong, as did Saul?

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