Jews return to their homeland… and the man who would kill the rest of the exiles in one day!
DAY ONE – Ezra 4-6
“I never promised you a rose garden.” So goes the line from a song a generation ago. And so was the experience of the exiles returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Yes, the Lord God turned the heart of a king to open the door and pave the way for them. And yes, he financed their expedition and early efforts. Did they expect the people living in the land to just welcome them with open arms and rejoice over their religious revival? It didn’t happen that way. Instead, there was firm resistance to the returning Jews to rebuild the temple. For that temple represented God’s sovereignty over whoever lived there. It bespoke an ancient identity which would necessarily isolate anyone else not genealogically connected. And it foreshadowed a new independence under God which threatened the form of government already in place. So the current residents started a campaign of harassment, fake news and legal action to stop the rebuilding process. And it worked… for a while, that is. Then God stepped in again, empowering Haggai and Zechariah, prophets with powerful messages, to encourage the builders. And when the current king, Darius, made a search, he discovered the edict of his predecessor Cyrus authorizing and ordering all that the residents were trying to stop. He further ordered the governor to pay for all building expenses out of the royal treasury! Talk about a turnaround! No, it wasn’t easy for the Jews, but it was right. It required all the courage and perseverance they could summon. And it forced them to rely upon Almighty God to finish what they had begun.
This story is not unlike the confrontations of ideals and values going on in our culture and government right now. When some folks cannot get their way in a matter, they resort to harassment, sometimes violence, legal actions and even blatant lies to reinforce their position. What will keep God’s people on course?
- Make sure your values represent God’s righteous kingdom in this earthly setting.
- Make sure your motive is to glorify the Lord and reveal His saving grace and impeccable character.
- Make sure your behavior is honest and above board.
- Be ready to suffer indignity and/or loss as you stand on your scruples. It won’t be easy.
- Be ready to go all the way in representing your spiritual convictions, leaving the outcome to the Lord.
No, it’s not a rose garden. It’s life… but the faithful ones will get to smell the roses in God’s time.
DAY TWO – Haggai 1-2
So far as we can tell, Haggai received messages from Yahweh God for only four months–from August 29 to December 18 (our calendar)! That was in the 2nd year of King Darius, the successor to Cyrus, who opened the door for Jews to return from Babylon to Judah. The foundation of the new temple had lain idle and unbuilt for some twenty years after its inception. Meanwhile, the Jews had gone on with their life, rebuilding their homes and communities, planting/harvesting their crops, raising their children. The only problem was, things weren’t working out very well. Into that reality stepped Haggai, to give three separate messages from Yahweh, explaining their predicament and offering real help. In order for God to help them, the people would have to help God! Imagine that… and repeatedly, in His messages, the Lord referred to Himself as Yahweh of Heavens Armies–Yahweh Sabaoth. This God of heaven, this Creator, this God associated deeply with Israel’s history, was not off on some trip to somewhere in his universe, busy with celestial matters. No, this God of theirs was real and present and deeply involved with all that mattered–their lives, their prosperity, their future. He encountered them and responded to them. He chided them and plead with them. He turned their fortunes backward but promised to bless them, if only they would build His house and restore His worship in the land. It is obvious from what we now know about Israel and Judah that they have always represented the God of heaven on earth, and especially to the nations around them. God has NEVER let them be, never left them alone, even to this very day. And ALL of this is part of His plan to save the world from assured destruction until He has grown a ginormous family and gathered them to Himself! So we see, everything matters to God.
Perhaps we think that, because we have accepted Christianity as our religious pursuit, none of this Israel connection matters to us. Think again. It matters deeply, because all that the Lord began in Israel He is working in us and through us. Yet He is not done with Israel either, not one bit. Israel is still the lynchpin of history and the crystal ball of the future. The saving of the world through Israel and the church is basically one and the same, only in two great movements that are forever interlinked. It is through Father Abraham and his faith, that righteousness was first reckoned to a man, and it is through God’s Son, Jesus (Yahshua), that righteousness was perfected and became a human reality. Lift up a prayer today for your world, and remember to thank God for Israel!
DAY THREE – Zechariah 1-7
A contemporary of Haggai, Zechariah received this series of short, intense messages aimed at calling those returned from Babylon to take careful note of their ways. First and foremost, they show that Yahweh God retained a vital interest in Jerusalem and the Temple, and that He was determined to have a people who would fulfill their divine destiny under His watchful eye. They had been scattered to the four winds, but now the call was going out to bring them back, for the Lord fully intended to crush the nations who had dealt with His people so cruelly and without compassion. In order to do that, Jerusalem and the Temple had to be rebuilt, the order of worship reestablished, and the Spirit of God restored to His rightful place. Their government having been destroyed when they were in exile, it was necessary to stand Jeshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor before God’s angel and deal with their identity. In a vision, Zechariah watched as the high priest received bright new clothes to replace his filthy ones and the governor heard God say, “‘It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit,’ says Yahweh of Heaven’s armies.” Zerubbabel would soon place the capstone on the new temple while shouting “Grace! Grace!” As readers of these historical events, our eyes may occasionally get glassy as we wonder at all the symbolism and its meaning. We mustn’t be put off by what isn’t familiar to us; rather we must see the big picture of God’s dealings concerning His own interests that began with the original couple in the Garden of Eden and will end in the new heavens and earth with His wonderfully begotten and burgeoning family taken from all the nations of the world!
Our modern world with its constantly changing conditions and shifting centers of power, driven by economic and political interests on a worldwide scale, can present confusing options. We know that God exists. We are not always sure whose side He is on. We hope we can make it to heaven somehow. And into this milieu God Himself speaks through His prophet: Zechariah 7:8-10 (NLT) Then this message came to Zechariah from the Lord: 9 “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. 10 Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other. Forget religion, which is primarily an attempt to make ourselves acceptable to God. Rather, embrace the Lord Himself by loving Him with all your heart, your soul, your strength. Receive Him with humble heart. Follow the instructions in the above verses. And leave the OUTCOMES to His sovereignty. He was able then, and He is able now.
DAY FOUR – Zechariah 8-14
These chapters read like a colorful travel brochure with invitation to visit Israel! The Israel God is describing is vibrant, compelling and not to be missed at any cost. But as we continue to read, it is like boarding a space shuttle and heading off into the distant future at warp speed! One may recognize several Messianic passages which reveal details of Jesus’ life, yet several hundreds of years in the future. And by the time we get to the end we are seeing details of Jerusalem in the end of time as we know it. One passage in the last chapter sounds like a description of nuclear fallout on God’s enemies. But let’s remember the context in which Zechariah is prophesying: the Temple of God. God’s house was started by the remnant exiles but still lies unfinished. Obstruction by non-Jews living in the land had brought the project to a standstill for twenty years. So Zechariah joined Haggai in delivering God’s words to the people, challenging them to a life of righteousness and industry. Finish the project; do what is right; treat each other with honesty and integrity. And it turned out that God’s plans were much bigger than they realized; more far-reaching than the imagination; more powerful than all the nations combined. God through this prophet was revealing His plans that stretch into an age that lies ahead of even us, though we can now see its approach fairly clearly. Living in the moment, Israel failed to understand their crucial role in resolving all of history in the centuries that lay ahead.
At this point in our reading we are very close to the end of the Old Testament history of Israel and Judah. And we are very close to the Revelation of God’s most powerful option, the eternal successor of King David, Jesus of Nazareth. We must focus on the power of God’s restoration of the Holy People for the purposes of completing His eternal plans regarding the nations. The whole world is now caught up in heaven’s drama, and not a single nation has risen that is able to deter or defeat God’s intentions that appeared in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The first couple embodied a kind of heaven on earth, and through the miracle workings of the Creator eventually found its way into Abraham’s descendants, and finally into our current reality. There is much to be said about this, and of course that truth lies in the New Testament. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We will finish our story of the return of the exiles, we will see the temple restored and life in Israel moving ahead, awaiting God’s next great triumph.
DAY FIVE – Esther 1-10
God is not mentioned, not even once. This story is entirely about the Jews and about a wicked plot to annihilate them on a single day. Who are the characters in this story? There is King Xerxes, who reigns in the fortress of Susa, over all of the Babylonian Empire. There is Queen Vashti, whose insolence causes her to be banished. Then Esther, a young Jewish woman, whose identity is kept hidden, becomes the new queen. There is Haman, a king’s official, who hates the Jews with a royal hatred. And finally there is Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and protector, who discovers the sinister plot to destroy the Jews. And though Yahweh, God of the Jewish people, is not named in this story, His sovereignty and intervention are plastered all over its pages.
We get keen insight into the nature of life in the empire and the power of kings through this story. Xerxes ruled over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. With nothing better to do, he threw a lavish celebration that lasted for six months, feting his nobles, officials and friends, with rivers of wine and sumptuous feasts. Later, two of his officials plotted to assassinate him, but Mordecai the Jew discovered the secret and revealed it to the king, whose life was spared. In the meantime, Haman’s star had been rising in the government of King Xerxes, and he received a high promotion that allowed him to shine before the public. Enamored with his own importance and achievements, Haman conceived a wicked scheme to annihilate the entire Jewish population scattered throughout the kingdom, all in one day. All of the empire wass thrown into confusion. In sackcloth and mourning, Mordecai the Jew, Esther’s uncle and protector, sent her a secret message, revealing the scheme hatched against her people. With no official standing, Esther wondered what she could do; but with Mordecai’s encouragement she decided to risk her life by appearing before the king unbidden. Now note this: it’s very important, for Esther sent word back to Mordecai to entreat all the Jews living in Susa to neither eat nor drink for the next three days, an expression of their mourning over their impending doom.
As we have said, God is not mentioned, not even once, in this historical account. But because we have been reading through the Bible for months now, we already know about the Lord’s sovereign relationship with the Jews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We know how He delivered them from Egypt with an unprecedented display of power; how He established them at Sinai under Moses; how He brought them into Canaan, giving them their Promised Land. And we know how He scattered them to the nations after they incessantly persisted in idolatry and the evil practices of the nations around them. But we also know about His plans to save the world through the Jewish people.
The power of prayer with fasting is written into the warp and woof of Esther’s story. Deep mourning, despair, the sense of hopelessness, lay behind this desperate action of Mordecai and the Jews of Susa. But we mustn’t forget the power of love and beauty that rose to challenge the dark, vengeful behavior of one man. Haman wonderfully succeeded in creating the decree that would allow the annihilation of all the Jews who remained in the empire during the post exile years. Now, with victory over his enemies assured, he congratulated himself to his wife and noble friends as his star reached its zenith. Exultant that he alone had been invited to celebrate with the king and his beautiful Queen Esther, not just today but again tomorrow, his joy was unbounded. He would kill Mordecai and wait for the rest of the extermination on its scheduled day.
But King Xerxes couldn’t sleep. He reviewed the books and was reminded how he was saved from assassination by Mordecai. What should be done? Mordecai should be exalted. So the next morning, the day Haman would kill Mordecai, he had to instead put a royal robe on this man, set him on the king’s horse, and parade him through the city proclaiming his honor! And at the Queen’s banquet that same day, he was exposed as the evil schemer! Condemned, he was impaled on the pole he designed and erected for Mordecai’s execution! At Esther’s request, an edict was issued granting the Jews to defend themselves on the day of their annihilation, and fear of these Jews fell over the empire. Who can go against them? Who can succeed in destroying them? No one, not as long as Yahweh God is watching over them and keeping them.
Even today, the Festival of Purim is still celebrated in Israel, commemorating the salvation of the Jews when their enemies were set to wipe them out. God isn’t mentioned, but was He there? Did He cause a young Jewish beauty to capture a king’s heart? Did He promote Mordecai? Did He expose wicked Haman? Did He save the Jews from annihilation, even though they chose to live where they were instead of going back to Judah and Jerusalem? History suggests that yes, we can see God’s imprint all over this incredible unfolding of events. The characters, the timing of events, the fasting with prayer, the triumph of good over evil, and the continuing celebration of victory among the Jews today–God is clearly seen behind it all. Give thanks today; the Lord is watching over us!