Archive for : February, 2021

Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book Esther: A Story of Gallows, Timely Courage, and the Unmistakable Work of God

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount the hope-filled, yet difficult struggle of God’s people as they return from exile and rebuild the nation. The Lord is clearly at work in fulfilling his promise and bringing his people back from the darkness of living as foreigners in a strange land. They rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they reconstruct walls around the city, they seek to turn back to God’s Law, and God’s presence is undeniably in their midst as he provides for their needs. Judah is finally home. Jerusalem is being reestablished. God has not abandoned the family of Abraham.
Yet, even as all of this is going on for years in Jerusalem, not everyone in the Jewish nation gets to go home. Not all of God’s people get to see the glory of the temple as it rises from the rubble in Jerusalem. In fact, a great number remain in exile under the rule of a pagan empire, Persia. So what about those people? God is in Jerusalem in his holy temple, but is he still with his people in exile? Has God abandoned those left behind, those who didn’t go home?
These are some of the puzzling questions that might strike readers of the book of Esther. Set in the capital city of the Persian empire amidst evil kings and devious rulers, Esther tells the account of the plight of the Jews still living in exile. Famously, God is not mentioned once in the entire story. So where is God? Has he left his people to destruction? As the events of Esther unfold, the resounding answer is that God certainly has not forsaken his chosen family. Although seemingly silent and invisible, the Lord is at work on every page of the book of Esther.
Apparent coincidences and ironies abound throughout the narrative of Esther. A lowly Jewish orphan girl somehow catches the eye of the king of Persia and wins a beauty contest to become the next queen. Her relative and de facto father figure, Mordecai, happens to overhear an

assassination plot against the king and saves his life. And just as Esther rises to her royal position, wicked Haman convinces the king to order the extermination of all of the Jewish people. As Esther and Mordecai hear of the horrifying plot, they mourn greatly at the danger coming upon their people. Yet, Mordecai points out to Esther that what has been happening in their lives may be no coincidence after all:
“Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14).
Although Mordecai does not mention God explicitly, it seems clear that he has a deep trust in the promises that God will be with and deliver his people. Not only that, but he wonders if perhaps the events of Esther’s life were all leading to this so that she would be in the right place at the right time in order to bring deliverance for God’s people. Even so, Esther is hesitant and afraid. What if Mordecai has it all wrong? What if she enters the king’s presence unsummoned and is killed on the spot? What if God really isn’t at work? But even in her fears, Esther chooses the difficult path of courage and sacrifice:
“Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:15-16)

Esther bravely decides to put her own life at risk for the chance of saving her people from the plot of Haman. Throughout the rest of the story, it becomes clearer and clearer that God truly is at work. In the very next chapter, Haman hatches a plan to have Mordecai killed, and he builds a gallows for that very end. And just as he is about to ask the king to execute Mordecai, the king is planning to honor Mordecai for saving his life. Just that night, the king just so happened to be restless and was read the account of Mordecai thwarting the assassination attempt against the king. In the very next chapter, Haman’s plot to kill the Jews is revealed by Esther, and the king responds by executing Haman on the gallows he built for Mordecai, and he then promotes Mordecai to take Haman’s place. In his new position of power, Mordecai is able to issue a decree that allows the Jews to protect themselves from their enemies, thus saving them from Haman’s original order.
As the book concludes, it becomes evident that truly all the details, coincidences, and events of the story were working together for this purpose. The beauty of Esther, her rise to power, Mordecai’s overhearing of the assassination plot, the sleeplessness of the king, the pride of Haman, and countless other details all perfectly collide to provide a redemption from sure destruction. It then becomes unmistakable that God has providentially orchestrated the salvation of his holy nation. Even when he appears absent, he is working behind the scenes in his own wondrous way. Not only is he in his temple in Jerusalem, he is in exile in Susa, moving and protecting and providing. When Haman sold the Jews for silver and cast the lot for their annihilation, God already had a plan in place to use unlikely heroes to provide rescue.
The book of Esther is a profound reminder of God’s abiding presence, his mysterious providence, and his utter faithfulness to his people. It prompts us to consider how God is

working in our day and in our lives and how we can have the timely courage of Esther and Mordecai so that we might be willing to take hold of the opportunities that God has set before us to be a part of his redemptive work. Even more powerful are the echoes of the gospel story in Esther. Just as the gallows built by Haman was the means of his own downfall, the cross used to execute Jesus was the means of destroying Satan’s power. Just as Mordecai was doomed for a gruesome death but exalted to power, Jesus was raised up and seated at the right hand of the throne of God. When Jesus was sold for silver and destined for destruction, God worked victory and salvation for his people. When God seemed most absent, he was totally involved and present. And just as Esther was, Jesus was willing to lay down his own life for the people. Make no mistake, God is at work in our world, and each day he gives us opportunities to participate in his redemptive plan. Perhaps we have come to this particular moment in our lives for such a time as this.

Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book Nehemiah: The Joy of The Lord is Your Strength

What happens when we hear the Word of God? When God speaks, things happen. Worlds are formed. Light appears and darkness scatters. The foundations of the earth tremble at his voice. But what happens in us when we hear the Word of God? What is supposed to happen? Because if we truly listen to the voice of God in Scripture, we cannot but help but be massively affected in some way. If the same Lord who said “Let there be light” speaks into our lives, something amazing can occur.
As with the book of Ezra, in the book of Nehemiah we see both physical and spiritual rebuilding among God’s people returning from exile. Once again, God works in the heart of a pagan king so that Nehemiah is allowed to return to Jerusalem and help rebuild the city walls. Nehemiah comes up against trials from all fronts in this task. He must deal with crafty enemies and a difficult undertaking but because of his servant leadership, the people have a mind to work, and they accomplish the mission of rebuilding the city walls.
Yet again, however, the spiritual restoration is the major focus in the book of Nehemiah rather than the physical walls. We see over and over that it’s the Word of the Lord that is at the center. God’s own Word is what truly create change in the hearts of the people. For instance, in Nehemiah 5, when it is discovered that the people are oppressing the poor and exacting interest from their neighbors, Nehemiah is greatly disturbed and points the people back to the foundational principles of God’s Law. And in the same chapter, Nehemiah leads by example in not participating in all the wealth and privileges afforded by his position in order to not lay a heavy burden on the people. Nehemiah was living with a fear of God and his Word.

Not only did Nehemiah seek to live out the Word by example and service, but he also desired greatly for it to be taught among the people. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra reads the book of the Law and he and other leaders explain it to the people:
“And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:6-8).
This is a wonderful moment for Judah. The covenant is being renewed; they are being reminded of God’s holy standard for them. And not only are they simply hearing it, but great care is taken so they understand it as well. So what happens when these people hear and understand the Word of God? What is the result of their understanding? Notice what happens next:
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your
strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be

grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
What is the result of their understanding? It is not the moment of happiness that we might first expect. It is great weeping and mourning. Why? It’s because they see the standard so clearly set before them, and it is unmistakable that they have fallen woefully short. They are convicted by the truth of God’s Word. They have not kept their side of the covenant; they have been miserably unfaithful. This is not a wrong response. It is good and right that they feel this way because it reflects the reality. They had been faithless; they were guilty.
Yet, the leaders insist that they cease their weeping and mourning. Why? The answer is there in the text: “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Understanding God’s Word certainly creates in us a sense of sorrow and inadequacy, as it should. However, he also imparts a superior power—his own joy. This moment was not about their failures but about God’s great faithfulness and his covenant-keeping love. As they came to him in repentance and renewed fervor to obey the covenant, they could have joy because God did not give up on his people, even in exile. Our strength is not in our obedience or power; it is in God’s joy. His steadfast love and joy in his people supersedes their failures, their guilt, and their shame. The leaders remind the people that this a holy day of rejoicing in all that God had done in working for them. Godly grief and repentance are good and appropriate—as is demonstrated by the people’s prayer in the next chapter—but joy in God should always triumph His mercy and strength turns our rightful shame and guilt into rejoicing over what God has done. This allows us to be free from reliance of our own works and free from the overwhelming burden of guilt so that we are sustained by the Lord’s mighty working, despite our weakness.

Understanding God’s Word should routinely convict us and make us mourn over the gravity of our sin. We aren’t really grasping his truth if we aren’t brought to our knees by our grievous sin and his great holiness. Yet, if we are truly hearing what God has to say, we will not be left in shame for long. His Word always provides a joy and hope because of his faithfulness. Who he is provides us a solid hope amidst our wickedness. It constantly reminds us to cast off our ways and to continually pursue his way by his strength and grace. As a result, our change comes from a trust in his unchanging goodness rather than from a reluctant, guilt-induced desire to modify our behavior. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
This is one of the great meanings of the cross of Jesus Christ. Certainly, we cannot see the cross without seeing in it the horrors of our sin. The consequences of our rebellion puts the Son of God to death. Every person with a soft heart will weep concerning his part in the death of God’s beloved one. We know, however, that our mourning over the cross is not the dominant, ultimate reaction that we should have. In the cross, we see the strengthening joy of God because he faithfully removes our sin in Jesus and allows us to be reconciled to him by his grace. His indestructible life and his infinite joy overpower the sorrow of our unfaithfulness. It is by this grace and joy that we are empowered to love and serve this faithful God. As we saw in Ezra, repentance and grief are essential, but they are not final. God replaces that sadness with happy hope for those who come to him in love and humility. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
“For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book Ezra: A Restored People

After many years of suffering and darkness in exile for God’s people in Babylon, hope springs anew in the book of Ezra. Amazingly, the Lord stirs up the pagan king Cyrus to allow a group of the exiled Jews to return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the holy temple of God. The Lord’s faithfulness is evident in his way of working; he stirs up the heart of the king for his purposes and for the good of his people. Finally, after the shame of the destruction of the temple and the disorientation of living in a foreign land, there is light and a new beginning for Israel. Cyrus even provides all the resources needed for this group to be successful in accomplishing the task of building the temple. Led by Zerubbabel, God’s people head for home and a fresh start.
Yet, as we read throughout the book of Ezra, we discover that the work of rebuilding and restoration is far from simple. Due to apathy, opposition, and discouragement, it takes nearly twenty years for the construction of the temple to be finally completed. Through it all, though, God is faithful and the temple rises from the rubble once more. Naturally, this is an occasion of worship and great rejoicing in what God had done:
“And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (Ezra 6:16).
“And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel” (Ezra 6:22).

This picture of true worship and joyful thanksgiving would provide a lovely and tidy ending to the story for God’s people. After brokenness, now we see restoration. Out of the decades of sorrow arises a new moment of joy. Through failure, God provides redemption. However, as the book of Ezra makes clear, the completion of the physical temple is not the end. There is much more work to be done. True restoration is about more than right ritual or joyful worship.
This is where Ezra comes onto the scene. Nearly sixty years after the temple has been established, the scribe Ezra is sent to Jerusalem to continue the mission of restoration in a new way. His work is more than mere physical labor. His task is to teach and to help rebuild the people, to renew their covenant faithfulness and commitment to the Law of God. While the rebuilding of a physical holy place—the temple—was a clear sign of hope and of God’s presence, God also desires for his own people to be holy and set apart in every way, not just in the visible symbols of cedar and stone. As is evident in Ezra 7:9-10, Ezra is just the man for the job:
“For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
Ezra reflects what should be the attitude of all who seek God’s will: setting in our heart to not only study God’s Word but also to do it and to teach it to others. For God’s people to be truly faithful and holy, they need leaders like Ezra who have deep-rooted desire to learn, obey, and proclaim.

Even with the right disposition of heart, Ezra realized that in his day, restoration and renewal requires hard work and difficult choices because the challenges he faced were very great. This reality is on display in Ezra 9 as he is informed about Israel’s serious sin:
“The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy
race[a] has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice” (Ezra 9:1-4).
The holy temple was a sign and symbol of God’s distinct and special presence among Israel, who were supposed to be set apart and holy in the way that they lived. Yet, they were not living up to that call to purity. In fact, they were marrying foreigners of other lands and were participating in their abominations, which was one of the major reasons they ended up in exile in the first place. They became just like every other nation in idolatry, in wickedness, and in injustice. These marriages threatened their mission to rebuild as a holy people devoted to the Lord and his law because they were directly disobeying God in aligning with foreign nations.
Ezra’s response to Israel’s sin shows what is needed for true restoration. In his heartfelt and heart-wrenching prayer to the Lord, he responds in total recognition of the gravity of the

people’s sin, an appeal to God’s mercy and love, and a call to repentance. Notice these aspects in portions of Ezra’s prayer:
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today” (Ezra 9:6-7).
“For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.” (Ezra 9:9)
“O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” (Ezra 9:15)
In his praying, Ezra does not make an attempt to hide or to diminish the weightiness of the sins that the people have committed. He openly admits how undeserving and ungrateful Israel has been. He also recognizes God’s steadfast love despite their unfaithfulness. It is clear that Israel’s only hope is the mercy and longsuffering love of God. And in his praying, he demonstrates his understanding of the need for repentance, that the people turn back to the Word of God as spoken in the Law and the Prophets. Ezra’s praying, fasting, confessing, and weeping before God leads the people to be heartbroken over their own sin, and they decide to make a

covenant to repent and do what is right. The people attempt to turn back to holiness in their marriage relationships and in their association with pagan nations.
This account from God’s word reminds us that restoration to what God wants us to be must begin with an intensely honest admission of our guilt before the Lord, with a broken heart concerning sin, a reliance on God’s mercy, and a commitment to change for the better. Ezra reminds us that holiness must be utterly pervasive in the lives of God’s people. It’s not just about the outward appearance or in physical buildings or in the worship of the mouth. It’s about a heart to God’s will and a courage to make tough decisions in order to obey that will. It’s about being totally holy in our hearts, in our relationships, in our families, and in everything we do. The Lord Jesus has set before us a holy standard to follow, one that leaves no area of our lives untouched. Being a restored and holy people of God’s own possession requires a consistent evaluation of our lives in relation to Jesus and a constant willingness to lament and repent when we fail to live up to it. And when we do that and rely on God’s mercy and faithfulness to help as we do, we can have joyful confidence that God is restoring, refreshing, and renewing his people in his love, grace, and forgiveness.