God works with small groups.
The book of Ezra begins with the decree, made by Cyrus king of Persia in 538 B.C., that gave the Jewish exiles the right to finally return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple of the Lord. (Here’s an interesting side note to that story. Many scholars believe that Daniel was instrumental in stirring the heart of the king by sharing with him the prophecies in Jeremiah 25 and 29 regarding the return of the exiles from Babylon. Incidentally, these prophecies mention King Cyrus of Persia by name—even though they were written 150 years before his birth.)
Can you imagine being in exile, virtually a slave!, for 70 years and, all of a sudden, being told you can return to the land of your fathers? There must have been widespread celebration and glee. It’s interesting, then, that only a small number of the exiles actually returned to Jerusalem. That’s right. Even though they had been given the green light to go home, the majority of the Israelite exiles stayed right where they were.
Before we’re quick to judge, however, let’s consider what they were up against:
- Returning to Jerusalem required a long and dangerous journey. Not to mention that it was expensive.
- When they arrived in Jerusalem, they knew they would find ruins, not a thriving city. Instead of the home they remembered, they would certainly be faced with crumbling dwellings, roads, and other infrastructure headaches.
- They didn’t have a lot of money.
- They had a lot of enemies in the land.
- Despite their freedom to return to Jerusalem, they knew intellectually that it still belonged to another empire.
There were a lot of daunting reasons to make one want to stay put. After all, 70 years is a long time, and I’m sure the exiles had become quite accustomed to their life—even if it was one without freedom in a foreign land. (Wow. Isn’t that a metaphor for sin? God has liberated us from having to live as the old man. We have been born to new life, and we can choose to “go home” and live like new people. But so often, we prefer to stay in our old, familiar habits—even if they’re self-destructive.)
So, only a minority of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem. However, they didn’t fail, they flourished. You see, with God, there is no strength in numbers. God is the source of our strength. Consequently, He is more than able to work with small groups. He doesn’t need an army of people to accomplish His plan. All He needs is a few whose hearts are open and willing. We might even say that He’s the pioneer of the small group.
In fact, God can and does often work with the smallest group available: the group of one. You. Me. Individuals who have open hearts to the Lord and are willing to be led by His Spirit. When our door is open to Him, there is no limit to what He can accomplish in and through us. Again, He doesn’t need numbers for strength. All the strength is in Him!
Revelation 3:20 says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” God is interested in the smallest of groups. He’s interested in you. And every day, He is knocking at the door. Have you heard His knock today? Are you willing to make the journey with Him back to Jerusalem? Or would you rather remain in Babylonian exile?
Don’t be one of those who misses out on the adventure! And don’t wait for anyone else to sign up. With God, you can be an army of one. He doesn’t need anyone else but you. Go on, now. Open the door!
God calls us His children.
In the nation of Israel, it was very important to know (and be able to show) where you came from. Who was your family? Your clan? Your tribe? After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, I’m surprised that those who returned to Jerusalem following the decree of Cyrus could even trace their family history. Yet, the vast majority of those who made the journey home were able to show that they were, indeed, descendants from the tribes of Israel.
Not everyone had such luck, however. There were a few whose family records had gone astray during their time in exile: “The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel: The descendants of Delaiah, Tobiah and Nekoda, 652. And from among the priests: The descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai (a man who had married a daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by that name). These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there was a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim.” (vs 59-63)
Now, if you remember from the beginning of Israelite history, the Urim and Thummim were some sort of objects that were used in connection with the High Priest’s breastplate in order to determine the will of God in a situation. In this case, once a priest was “ministering with the Urim and Thummim,” those individuals who couldn’t show their family history would appear before the priest, and by the witness of the Urim and Thummim, it would be determined whether they were Israelites.
So, the Urim and Thummim would essentially be God’s way of testifying on behalf of these people. If God said that they were Israelites, they would be accepted into the family. That automatically made me think of what Paul said in the book of Romans about our inclusion in God’s family: “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba,Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Rom 8:14-16)
By tempting Adam and Eve to sin, Satan tried to put us on the outside of God’s family forever. And I’m sure that all of us, at times, have felt like outsiders. But what Paul and Ezra tell us is that God Himself calls us His children. He says we’re part of the family. He testifies on our behalf that we belong in the household with all the other children.
From God’s perspective, there has never been a doubt about this. He has always called us His children. If there has been any question about whether we are part of the family, it has always come from our side, because the sad fact is that there are some who don’t want to be part of God’s family anymore. That won’t make God stop thinking of them as children, but neither will He force them to stay at home if that’s not where they want to be.
So, don’t ever worry about whether God will take you into His family. In His eyes, you are in the family. He calls you His child. And whenever someone else questions your place in the family, He will personally testify on your behalf that, yes!, you belong!
God's love is the foundation of His government.
This was a short and sweet chapter, so I thought a short and sweet blog would be in order. Did you catch these verses? “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: ‘He is good; his love toward 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.” (vs 10-11)
I love it when something in a piece of literature carries a double meaning. I think there’s an example of this in verse 11. It says the people rejoiced because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In one sense, of course, the author is talking about the physical foundation of the temple. It had been decades since there had been a temple of the Lord in Israel, and to see it rebuilt after all that time must have been an incredible experience.
However, I also think the verses revealed another type of foundation: He is good; his love endures forever. This is the ultimate foundation of everything God is and does. He is always good. His love endures for eternity. There is nothing we can do to make Him stop loving us. There is nothing we can do to make Him retaliate against us. His love and His goodness are the very foundations of who He is. And if anything, that should make us give a great shout of praise to the Lord!
God reveals our hearts.
I was recently discussing the topic of The Judgment with some friends. I think this is a widely misunderstood concept. I believe that when most people think of The Judgment, they envision some sort of heavenly court where we are each going to stand before God and hear Him pronounce a verdict about us. Are we wicked? Are we righteous? He will make His decision and bang His gavel, and that will be that.
I don’t think that’s how The Judgment works at all! That’s because, in God’s universe, judgment is never something that’s pronounced. It is always something that is revealed. So, when we all stand before God on Judgment Day, what we are (whether righteous or wicked) will be revealed, not declared.
That’s exactly how judgment worked in this chapter. Did you pick up on it? “When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, ‘Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.’” (vs 1-2)
This seems like a nice gesture, doesn’t it? Except the author has clued us in to the fact that these people are actually enemies of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Why, then, would they want to help build the temple? Would they try to sabotage it? Would they try to introduce pagan worship? It wouldn’t seem that their motives would be good ones.
However, the people who are building the temple don’t know that they are enemies. In fact, those offering assistance have presented themselves as seekers of the same God. It would have been very easy for the Israelites to accept their assistance. After all, more hands make for lighter work, right? But they didn’t accept it. Instead, they said they would carry out the building plans God had given King Cyrus.
Upon hearing this, what did these “seekers of the same God” do? They “set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (vs 4-5)
Wow. When they didn’t get what they wanted, they sure turned nasty! You see, they weren’t enemies of Judah and Benjamin because God said they were. Their own actions revealed that that’s what they were. And I believe that’s ultimately how The Judgment works as well. Jesus alluded to this in Luke, chapter 6: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (vs 43-45)
So, if you’ve been one of those folks who tremble at the thought of standing before God’s judgment seat, I urge you not to be afraid. During those final events, no one will pronounce a verdict or impose a label upon you. You will simply be revealed for the kind of person you are. (Now if that’s something that makes you tremble, why not have a little talk with God about it? If you want to be a different kind of person, He can help.)
God watches over us.
In the last chapter of Ezra, we learned that there was some fierce opposition to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. It continued in this chapter: “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 to finish it?’ They also asked, ‘What are the names of those who are constructing this building?’ 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.” (vs 3-5)
When facing such opposition, how comforting it must have been for these Israelites to know that God was watching over them. It didn’t matter who tried to sabotage their efforts. It didn’t matter how much red tape they were put through. God, through King Cyrus, had issued a decree to rebuild the temple. They were carrying out His wishes, and they knew that He would be with them.
I don’t know about you, but it is so easy for me to forget that God is watching over me. It’s so easy to lose sight of the fact that God’s eye is on me. He knows me. He cares about me. And He is for me. (By the way, He knows you. He cares about you. And He is for you, too.) If I kept that in mind, maybe it would be easier to not let myself get discouraged by other people.
I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. You’re trying to follow God’s will for your life, trying to be guided by the Spirit, and inevitably, somebody (well-meaning or not) comes along and rains on your parade. Maybe they discourage you. Or maybe they outright oppose you. In fact, for a time, maybe it appears as though they will get the better of you, be able to shut down what you’re trying to do for God.
When those kinds of things happen, don’t let it discourage you. Remember that the eye of your God is watching over you. He sees what you’re doing. He knows where your heart is at. And at just the right time, He will advance you as you follow His plan for your life. The distractions and the opposition of others won’t be able to obstruct your path if you keep your mind on Him. Remember that He knows you, He cares about you, He is for you, and in every way, He is always watching over you.
God blesses us through adversity.
I have to start today’s blog with a quote from a hymn written by William Cowper:
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
I love that idea: The clouds we dread are big with mercy. There is an absolutely beautiful example of this in this chapter of Ezra. But first, let’s review what happened in the previous chapter: “At that time Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates went to [the Israelites] and asked, ‘Who authorized you to rebuild this temple and to finish it?’ They also asked, ‘What are the names of those who are constructing this building?’” (Ezra 5:3-4)
So, Tattenai and Shethar-Bozenai decided they were going to shut down the work on God’s temple. First, they threatened the Israelites. Next, they went to the king and complained to such an extent that the king ordered an investigation. Wow, talk about storm clouds! To be met with such adversity and opposition must have been discouraging to the Israelites. I imagine they must have wondered if they would ever be able to finish the temple.
But then we turn to Ezra 6 and see what King Darius told those guys after he discovered the decree that had been issued by King Cyrus: “Now then, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and you other officials of that province, stay away from 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: Their expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and olive oil, -as requested by the priests in Jerusalem—must be given them daily without fail.” (vs 6-9)
That’s incredible! God took what those gentlemen meant for harm and used it to actually further the work on the temple. Instead of being hindered in their work, the Israelites ended up better off than before the two men had opposed them. The king not only told the men not to hinder the construction, but he actually ordered them to finance the work with local funds! Thus, the very opposition that threatened to end the work on the temple was used by God to make the work easier than it had been in the first place.
So, the next time the clouds gather around you, don’t be discouraged. Don’t let those clouds box in your vision. Remember that our God blesses us through adversity. He doesn’t bless us by removing obstacles. He blesses us by taking the obstacles others throw at us and turning them on their heads—bringing us out better on the other end than we were before the obstacle appeared.
William Cowper was right: The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy!
God is our strength.
Seven chapters into his book, Ezra finally arrives on-scene, and the first thing he does is conduct a massive undertaking. It’s a huge task, including making a great journey across a large desert, transporting sacred items and gold and silver for the temple, and appointing judges to rule over the land. With such a monumental list of responsibilities at hand, Ezra was definitely going to need a lot of strength.
And in verse 28, he explains where all that strength would come from: “And I was strengthened as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me.” At first, that seemed like an odd statement to me. We get strength from food, water, shelter, and plenty of rest. We get strength from exercising our muscles. When we think of strength, our first thought probably isn’t the hand of God.
But I think Ezra was onto something. I think he sensed that the one and only thing that could truly give him the kind of strength he needed was knowing that he was pursuing a course in life that was borne out of the Father’s hand.
Just think about those hands for a moment. God’s hands. Hands that have held waters at bay, stretched back the curtains of the sky, and smoothed the rumpled hair of little children. They are the hands that caught Peter and hauled him up out of angry waves, brought sight to the eyes of blind men, and were nailed to a cross, dirty and blood-stained. Hands that have ever been outstretched in blessing.
There is nothing those hands can’t do. There is nothing those hands won’t do to help us. And nothing—absolutely nothing, Paul says—can snatch us out of them. Yes, if there is any strength to be found in this weary world, it is in those hands and those hands alone. No matter what else we have or do not have, if we have the hand of God upon us, we have all the strength we need for the task at hand.
Take this lesson from Ezra today: God is our strength. And when His hand is upon you, blessing the fruits of your labor, you do indeed have everything you need.
God has a reputation.
Have you ever given much thought to God’s reputation? I guess if you asked ten different people what they thought of God, you would probably get ten different answers. But the fact that there are so many atheists in the world might suggest that, with some, God’s reputation isn’t a very good one. Many would rather believe that there is no God as opposed to believing in the kind of God they’ve been introduced to by some Christians. Makes me think of that bumper sticker I see from time to time: Please, Lord, save me from your followers!
Living in a world where the media controls so much of what we think, it’s astounding to realize that, for the most part, God leaves His reputation in our hands. He entrusts His public image to us. I think that, a lot of times, we fail to do justice to His name. But there are also times when we rise to the occasion. In this chapter, we saw Ezra rise to the occasion:
“There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, ‘The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him.’” (vs 21-22)
Ezra was getting ready to make a trek across the open desert with literally millions and millions of dollars in precious valuables. There was a very clear and present threat of danger, as robbers and bandits lurked in the region, always on the lookout for some loot. Obviously, Ezra was well aware of this danger.
Yet, Ezra had spoken to the king about God’s character. He had told the king (1) that Israel’s God was more than able to protect them and (2) that God was gracious and more than willing to bless His people. After describing God in this way, Ezra couldn’t bring himself to ask for any outside assistance. Instead, he decided that he would walk in faith and trust God for the protection they needed.
Incredible! Ezra was more jealous for God’s reputation than he was worried about his own safety. He was unwilling to beef up his personal protection if it meant possibly tarnishing God’s good name. This in itself is a reflection of God’s own character, for God is more concerned about us than He is about His own reputation.
From the very beginning, God has done what is best for us, regardless of what it made Him look like. He practices tough love and makes the hard choices in His dealings with us—even when these actions cause Him to be misunderstood. He would rather have a bad reputation than to needlessly lose one of His children.
Yes, God has a reputation, and in large part, He has left that reputation in the hands of His followers. That’s because He cares more about His followers than He does about His reputation. In this respect, Ezra took after his God. Will we?
God's protection is not universal.
In this chapter of Ezra, we encounter an idea that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament: “Blessings” for those who obey the Lord, and “punishment” for those who do not. In this case, Ezra is lamenting the discovery of further disobedience by the exiles. “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.” (vs 6-7)
This is actually one of the more gracious descriptions of God’s involvement in Israel’s devastation and humiliation. To say that, because of their disobedience, the people of Israel “have been subjected to” punishment or consequences sounds a lot different than many of the other passages which give God the full blame: If you obey, I will bless you, and if you disobey, I will destroy you, and so forth.
Many Christians I know do not like the way God is portrayed in this seemingly punitive way. They believe (and I agree with them) that the ultimate consequences of sin are not imposed by God, but are natural consequences. It’s sort of like saying that if you jump off the Empire State building, nobody needs to kill you for your disobedience on the way down. You will realize those natural consequences when you hit the pavement at the bottom.
But these Christians also believe that the seemingly punitive descriptions of God are actually misrepresentations of Him by the Bible writers—which I don’t agree with. Because what if you wanted to educate somebody—especially if it was your own child—about the dangers of jumping off the Empire State building? You couldn’t teach them by experience—that would defeat the purpose, as it would be the last thing they ever learned. Instead, you could teach them about the importance of obedience in other ways that don’t carry such grave consequences. Or you could teach them about gravity and its consequences on fragile objects by using a tall ladder, an egg, and a sidewalk.
Either way, it’s the lesson about obedience and its consequences (or disobedience and its consequences) that you want your child to learn. And you want them to learn that lesson before they’re in a situation where obedience or disobedience might be a life or death matter.
I believe God is operating under the same principle. That’s why I have no problem with the passages in the Old Testament that seem to make God look “punitive.” I have no problem with God saying, “If you don’t do what I ask, bad things will happen to you.” Because one of the most important lessons God needs to teach us is that His protection is not universal. We do have the capability of ultimately putting ourselves outside the realm of His protection.
God is the Source of Life, but that life is not built on an arbitrary foundation. It is based on love, freedom, and a relationship with God. Therefore, if we are determined to live in rebellious self-sufficiency, we can’t say to God, “I want to do things my own way and look out for myself, but I want you to save me from the consequences of living like that.” We can’t have it both ways. We can’t choose to jump off the Empire State building and say, “But, Dad, I want you to make it so that when I hit the pavement at the bottom, I’ll get up and walk away without a scratch.” It doesn’t work that way. In that situation, a parent has no power to save you.
That’s why I think God resorts to so much that looks punitive. By teaching us that His protection is not universal in this temporal life, God is helping us to understand that this is also the way it is with eternal life. We have the choice to place ourselves outside of His reach—although this isn’t what He wants—but if we do that, we will ultimately find ourselves destroyed. We won’t be destroyed by Him, but we’ll be destroyed just the same.
So, remember that the next time you’re reading an Old Testament passage that makes God look arbitrary and punitive. If you have or have had small children, think of what you would do in order to motivate them to obey you—not because you “demand to be obeyed,” but because you have their best interests in mind, and you want to save them from unnecessary harm.
God specializes in internal medicine.
Have you ever heard this saying? You can take a boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. That’s what I thought of as I read this last chapter in the book of Ezra. Only, in this situation, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, You can take the Israelites out of heathenism, but you can’t take heathenism out of the Israelites.
After returning from decades of slavery in Babylon, it didn’t take long for the exiles to take up with their old, wicked ways. Before long, there was an epidemic of Jews marrying foreign women from heathen nations—something strictly forbidden by the Mosaic law. Many commentators suggest that this wasn’t simply a matter of young people from “different sides of the tracks” falling in love. Rather, they suggest that—for whatever reason—Israelite men were divorcing and abandoning their Jewish wives for the express purpose of taking up with the heathen women.
Ezra recognized this as a serious problem and took serious steps to deal with it—including what amounts to the annulment of marriages and the separation of the couples by sending the women back to the lands they came from. However, this was not done arbitrarily or across the board. A council was organized to investigate these marriages on a case-by-case basis. Once again, Bible scholars indicate that what was being investigated was whether the wives had become followers of Israel’s God or if they retained allegiance to the gods of their homeland.
You see, marriage as designed by God has always required a threesome: A man, a woman, and God. And a lot of trouble ensues when the man and woman don’t agree on the God aspect. This very issue still causes trouble in modern marriages. In that regard, we’re no different than the Israelites.
God didn’t tell the Jews to refrain from marrying foreign women because He’s a snob about countries of origin. His plan was to cultivate Israel into a nation that would place God first in all things. The fact that they returned home from exile only to begin forming marital alliances with women who worshiped other gods suggested that the problems which had led them into Babylon in the first place were still there.
Israel’s problem wasn’t about geography or government. Their problem was an internal problem. It was about spiritual priorities, rebellion, and the willingness to be humble. Very few times in history had Israel actually submitted to the authority of the God they knew to be the one, true God. They knew all about Him, yet they ran after false gods anyway.
The problem the Israelites had is also the same problem we have today. It’s an internal problem. It’s a heart condition. We know all about the one, true God, yet we run in all sorts of directions, trying to control the outcomes of our lives and salvation. We still think we know better. We still think we can handle life on our own.
That’s why God specializes in internal medicine. His major concern is not over what we do as much as it is who we are. He is concerned about the state of our hearts—about those inside places that nobody else can see. Even if we can master “perfection” on the outside, God knows all about what’s lurking on the inside.
This has always been God’s primary specialty. It’s why Jesus said this to the Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matt 5:25-28)
There’s not much we can do to clean ourselves up on the inside. In fact, the Bible says we don’t even know our own hearts; we don’t even recognize the magnitude of our problem. But we serve a God who specializes in internal medicine. He knows how to clean us up on the inside. He knows how to change us from the inside out. And if we’ll trust Him long enough to let Him do His work, we’ll find ourselves changed a little more, day by day, into His image.
God doesn’t just want to take His people out of sin; He wants to take the sin out of His people. And He alone can do it.