Jeremiah: Successful Ministry

Surely, it is special to be called by God for a specific purpose and work. Jeremiah is one such person who is set by apart by God to be a prophetic messenger. Before he was even born, the Lord saw and appointed this mission for Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

What an honor this would be, to be chosen out of many to be a prophet to God’s people in the world. To be picked and called by the creator of the universe himself would be glorious, wouldn’t it? Yet, young Jeremiah’s message and ministry is no easy task. God does not send him out with a popular message. In fact, the Lord commissions him to proclaim truths that are deeply disturbing and upsetting to the people. Throughout his life, Jeremiah’s mission is to warn of imminent judgment coming from Babylon. Judah, God’s own people, have become woefully wicked and evil; justice is coming soon in the form of conquering Nebuchadnezzar. Unless the rulers and people repent and turn to God, utter desolation and destruction will surely ensue.

Even as Jeremiah brings these warnings of condemnation and judgment, he must combat a whole hosts of false prophets, priests, and leaders who are peddling a message that is the exact opposite of the Lord’s truth. Consider Jeremiah 6:13-14:

“For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Throughout the book, Jeremiah encounters many who are teaching a message of peace and prosperity. Essentially, everything is fine, no judgment is coming, and everyone is free to keep doing whatever they want. False prophets like Hananiah and Shemaiah lead the people to “trust in lies” and provide them with a false sense of security. Unsurprisingly, it is this message that nearly all of the people listen to.

Kings, leaders, and the people almost constantly reject Jeremiah and his prophesies of doom and future hope. Not only that, but he is intensely persecuted throughout his decades-long ministry. He is imprisoned, mocked, ridiculed, thrown into a muddy cistern, kidnapped, maligned, beaten, and mistreated. One of his only friends in all of this is the scribe Baruch; Jeremiah hardly wins any other converts that we know of in the book. Perhaps what is even more frustrating for Jeremiah is that his prophesies do in fact come true. No one listens to his pleas and warnings and surely enough, mighty Babylon swoops in with thunderous judgment and disaster, wiping out many of the people, desecrating the temple, capturing exiles, and causing immense suffering. Taking a close look at the life of Jeremiah makes being set apart by God seem a lot less glamorous and honorable than it might appear at first. Measured by human wisdom and calculated by most metrics, Jeremiah’s ministry was an utter failure; he lived a miserable and unfruitful life. His message was rejected, converts and friends were essentially nonexistent, and life was painful.

Would it have been better for Jeremiah to have refused the Lord’s appointment? It seems that Jeremiah often felt like it probably would have been. In Jeremiah 20, he cries out to the Lord and offers raw and honest reflection on his life and ministry:

“O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed, I have become a laughingstock all the day everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” (20:7-8)

“Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” (20:14)

“Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (20:18)

For Jeremiah, it would have been better to not have been born at all. In this moment at least, God’s word and God’s mission had only brought upon him pain and derision. Within the same chapter, however, he also reveals what continues to drive him to press on in his prophetic work:

“If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (20:9)

He cannot help but teach what has been given to him. He cannot unsee what he has seen. It’s a fire within his bones. He must proclaim the difficult truths of the Lord even if no one is listening. He must continue on because he cannot deny what is right and true.

Certainly, however, the book of Jeremiah is not all gloom and despair. Even as exile in Babylon is on the horizon, God has a plan to preserve his people and restore them and give them a new king from the line of David who will reign in righteousness and holiness. Jeremiah preaches sobering warnings but also profoundly hopeful descriptions of the future of a new king and a new people and a new covenant. Consider these beautiful words from the Lord:

“For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord, because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’.” (Jeremiah 30:17)

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

As we see in so many other places in Scripture, God refuses to give up on his people. He punishes, but he also binds up and heals. He is devoted and committed in his steadfast love to his covenant people, and he is determined to make them new and to write his law on their hearts.

One promise of hope comes in one of the most well-known passages in the book and in the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

In the context of the preceding verses, the Lord has promised to send his people into exile for seventy years in Babylon, but he will not forget them. He has a plan to bring good for his people. Truly, this is a wonderful reminder of God’s enduring compassion toward Judah. However, considering what we know about the life of Jeremiah, it is somewhat ironic that this verse is often used by many in our day to say that God has a specific purpose for each person to provide them with a happy and successful future. What Jeremiah demonstrates to us, though, is that being faithful to God doesn’t always result in physical wellbeing and success for each individual. Some future and hope Jeremiah had!

By all normal standards, Jeremiah died unsuccessful, lonely, and worthless. His ministry didn’t attract thousands of people or change any minds. He saw the destruction of the holy city and of God’s people. Prosperity and welfare were not the defining terms of Jeremiah’s life and work. He never experienced those things in this life, but God never promised those to him. God never promises us earthly success, comfort, ease, wealth, prosperity, or even a future in this life. God doesn’t have a perfect spouse prepared for everyone, and he doesn’t have a fun and meaningful career lined up for those who trust in him. In fact, suffering is promised to the people of God today: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). What God did promise was a future hope for his people through the Messiah and

through the new covenant. While that may have seemed like cold comfort at times to the exiles in Babylon, that’s actually a much better and more enduring eternal promise. God’s plans to bless and give us a future in Jesus may never be evident to the outside world in this life, but it is a sure hope to hold on to for eternity. And even as Jeremiah died thinking his words made scarcely any impact, for thousands of years his words have been read and treasured as a way of giving people hope in the Messiah. God used his suffering and his faithfulness to the truth in ways beyond what Jeremiah could have ever dreamed.

Embracing the difficult truths of following Jesus or proclaiming the harsh realities of judgment may very well cause us pain and persecution in this life. We may find no earthly success, but faithfulness will have its eternal reward by the grace of Jesus Christ. God’s plan for Paul was that he would suffer for the name of Christ. God’s plan for Stephen was a brutal death. God’s plan for his own son was bloody Calvary. Yet, all of those suffered knowing that they were pursuing a plan that was much better than the success, safety, and security that the world offered. God provides a future, a hope, and welfare through his magnificent plan of redemption that he worked Jesus. The Lord has set apart each of us for a purpose and a ministry that can impact eternity for the name of Christ. Let us embrace that mission knowing that God will give the increase and he will gain the glory even in our apparent failures and suffering.

Isaiah: Light to the Nations

The book of the prophet Isaiah explodes with powerful messages of both judgment and Messianic hope. Wrath and grace fill nearly every page. In Isaiah, there is both a terrifying expectation of punishment and a magnificent vision of hope. God will bring justice upon Judah and on the wicked nations surrounding them because of their evil, but he will also restore his covenant people and provide refuge and peace for the nations. This dual message is set up well by the first two chapters of Isaiah.

In Isaiah 1, the prophet sets the problem before the people in vivid fashion:

“Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged. Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel?

The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And the daughter of Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard like a lodge in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.”

God’s own people are desperately corrupt and sick, and injustice runs rampant. The source of their wickedness is that they have abandoned the glorious God of Israel for the sake of idolatry and evil. Therefore, they will be broken down and destroyed.

Of course, God does not abandon his people. He has a plan to make things right once again. Isaiah 2:1-5 provides us a beautiful picture of God’s future plans: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Not only will Jerusalem and the people of God be restored once more after exile, they will be a source of blessing for all nations. Out of Zion, the holy city of God, will come truth and light that leads all people to the guidance and wisdom of the Holy God of Israel. This will establish a reign of peace, where Israel will no longer be at war with its neighbors; people of every tribe and nation will seek to walk in the Lord’s light.

How can all of this be accomplished? How does this happen when God’s own covenant people are so unfaithful, unjust, and unloving? As we read through the book of Isaiah, we find mountains of treasures if we seek to discover God’s truth in this prophetic book. Although it was God’s design for Israel to be his servant that would bring light to the nations, their sin has rendered them unfit for the task. Israel was supposed to bring the world to the Lord, but they themselves are in desperate need of redemption and restoration. That’s why they need a new kind of servant and king, who can redeem them from their sins and who can faithfully display God’s glory and love to the whole world. A servant who is distinct from Israel but who also takes on Israel’s mission is needed. We see this in Isaiah 49:5-6:

“And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

This servant will be God’s instrument to bring Israel back to God but also to extend light and salvation to the ends of the earth. Throughout Isaiah, we read of this coming king and servant from the line of David who will usher in this new peace and righteousness (9:6-7). He will be born of a virgin (7:14) and he will be a righteous branch coming forth from the cut down stump of Jesse in order to bear the fruit of righteousness and justice and knowledge of the Lord in the world (11:1-9). But not only will this Messianic, Davidic king be a ruler of triumph and judgment and righteousness, he will be the one to deal with the sins of the people so that they can rejoin him on his mission to bring light to all. In order to do that, the servant must suffer:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”(Isaiah 53:4-6)

The suffering servant takes on the wrath, iniquity, and punishment deserved by all people unto himself. He opens the way for many to be accounted righteous through his atoning sacrifice and death (53:11-12). He will give himself over to death but not be conquered by it; he will live again and see his offspring (53:10).

It is hard to find a more powerful description of what Jesus has done for all of us. He was the lamb led to the slaughter to take away the iniquities of the world. That is how he establishes his kingdom and becomes the conquering Messianic king. That is how he restores Israel and shines light for the nations. It is through his death that God’s mission to save the world is revived and renewed. And he does all of this for his own glory, that he might be known and praised among all (Isaiah 48:11).

As Isaiah 59:2 puts it, our sin has separated us from God and broken our relationship with him. As that chapter shows us, the startling effects of sin create horrid injustice and darkness that cause us to stumble like the blind (Isaiah 59:9-10). But God didn’t leave us in that state of darkness:

“The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.” (59:15b-17).

The Lord knew we needed on intercessor, someone to take our sins and bring our plight to God. He knew we needed a righteous and suffering servant to take our sins and fight our battles. So the Lord entered into the darkness to bring light. He won the war we could not win. He put on the armor of righteousness and went to fight on our behalf. His own arm brought salvation down to us in Jesus. He delivered the way of justice to us. And just a few verses later we read that he did all that to bring us out of darkness so that we could be a people of light, so that we can take on the mission of the suffering servant to bless all the nations:

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

There is still great darkness on the earth, but the suffering servant Jesus is the Redeemer from Zion who has saved a special covenant people and given them his Spirit and his words to empower them for righteousness. That people is called to arise and shine the Lord’s light to the nations. We as the Church are that people today. The suffering servant has brought us out of darkness for his glorious mission of light. All glory be to the God through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

Song of Solomon: The Beauty and Danger of God’s Good Gifts


The unblushing and vivid descriptions of romantic desire and sexuality may unsettle readers of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs). The language and imagery and subject matter of this book of divinely inspired poetry are not what most of us expect to encounter when we approach the Word of God. There is talk of physical attraction and passion and intimacy and desire, all of which we might think should be foreign to the sacred pages of holy writ. So what is the Song of Songs doing in my Bible? What does sex and romance have to do with what God wants to teach me?
God is not ashamed of or embarrassed by sex. He created it as a good gift to be enjoyed as a part of his wise design. He made it for a purpose. It wasn’t a slip up or mistake that God made us the way we are. The goodness of romantic passion and sexual intimacy is clear throughout the poetry of the Song of Songs. The woman has a great desire and love for the man, and the man treasures and longs for the woman. They describe one another and their love for each other with rich imagery of a luscious garden and the bountiful abundance of God’s creation. There is great beauty and sweetness in the poetry found in the pages of this book of the Bible. The woman in 7:10 tenderly says: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” A similar statement is repeated in 2:16 and 6:3; this highlights the wonder and loveliness of being committed to and loved by another person. Belonging to someone in love is a precious thing.
Even so, over and over again in the Song of Songs, the reader is offered an important warning about love in this refrain: “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases”
(Song of Songs 8:4).
The Song repeats similar words in 2:7 and 3:5. The writer surely wants us to understand the importance of proper timing and waiting when it comes to romantic desire. In a world that thinks and preaches that sex and romance are ultimate, this is controversial instruction. Many pursue sex without commitment and intimacy without loving loyalty. Others rush into relationships (and even into marriage) hoping to find quick satisfaction and fulfillment in romantic love. In the eyes of the world, sexual freedom is a right, romance is the aim of life, and the erotic is commonplace and profane and normal. Yet, the Song of Songs reminds us that romantic love and sexuality have their proper, God-designed context. Marriage is the only place for sexuality to truly flourish. God made sex to be enjoyed in the context of the committed relationship of marriage. The absence of waiting spoils the gift, distorts the purpose, and destroys relationships. Forcing love or intimacy without submitting to God’s plan only leads to heartbreak, disappointment, and unfulfilled desire. If we do not receive God’s gifts in the appropriate time and setting, we belittle the gift and dishonor the Giver. The gift is not the main thing; the God who gave it is. Therefore, he has the right to determine the right place and time for the blessings he bestows.
As the Song of Songs closes, it gives a sharp reminder of the danger and beauty that is found in romantic love:
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.”
Love is intense and passionate and strong. It is fierce and fiery. In this striking language, there is a clear danger here. Love is like fire. It can be warm and useful and life-giving, but it can also destroy and hurt and burn with dangerous flames. Without the necessary boundaries and patience and commitment, many are hurt in the process.
So, the Song of Solomon lifts up the wonders and beauties of marital intimacy as a gracious gift of God. The book teaches us that we must not diminish or be embarrassed by sex because God created it as a good blessing, but we must also not elevate it or pervert it in such a way that ignores God’s protective design for such intense passion. This is no different than how we should respond to any other good blessing that God has given to us. It is amazing that God has designed our world in such a way that reflects his glory but also brings us joy as we behold his creativity and his graciousness. Yet, we can so easily abuse or take for granted the things that God meant for a specific purpose. Sex, money, food, work, pleasure, and so many other things are not inherently evil, but they can become incredibly destructive. When we trust God’s wisdom in receiving his good gifts on his terms, we increase our enjoyment in the gifts and in the one who gives us all good things.
We also are reminded that the commitment, love, and desire displayed so wonderfully in marriage was created by God to demonstrate his own covenant-keeping love for his people. Paul teaches us this in Ephesians 5:25-33: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
The relationship between husband and wife ultimately point to Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church. This was God’s purpose even from the beginning, that we see Jesus more clearly through the drama of a loving, God-honoring marriage. God gives to us so many amazing things to enjoy on this earth, but we must never forget that those blessings are always designed to point us back to the living and true God, the one who satisfies every need and who loves with perfect love.

Ecclesiastes: Out of Control

For “the Preacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes, life under the sun is confusing and chaotic, yet mercilessly predictable. Some things make no sense; sometimes bad things happen to those who are righteous, and sometimes the wicked prosper. Sudden and shocking tragedy can strike at any moment. Someone can work his whole life just for everything to be given to a fool. Life feels random and cruel. Yet, there is also a sense in which life is maddeningly predictable. Without fail, time marches on and all die. Everyone returns to dust. We are all subject to time and chance and death. In fact, those inescapable facts are what make life seem so futile and chaotic:
“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned, but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” (Ecclesiastes (9:11-12)
A person can spend his entire life attempting to get ahead by being the wisest, the strongest, the fastest, and the richest he can possibly be, but that’s no guarantee of success. Death can come at any moment. The seemingly random events of life can upset any progress. And as the Preacher points out, even what is accomplished will be forgotten or given to someone else. It is no wonder that Solomon seems to give into feelings of despair, such as in Ecclesiastes 1:13- 14: “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
Over and over the refrain of Ecclesiastes rings out with dismal certitude: life is meaningless. It’s like trying to chase wind and grab on to a vapor. Every time you think you have a grasp on life, it slips right through your fingers.
When disorienting and disrupting events occur in our lives, like pandemics or death or financial calamity, we begin to see clearly what was always the reality: we are not in control. We often live with illusion that we are the captains of our own lives, that we can determine our own fate. Life often cuts in and reminds us of the disturbing truth that we are at the mercy of forces beyond ourselves, no matter how tightly we try to hold on to our own sense of power and control. So what’s the point of even living at all? If it doesn’t matter what we do, why try at all? Why live with wisdom and why try to obey God?
The message of Ecclesiastes is much more nuanced than we might think at first; it is not simply a cry of despair with a half-hearted exhortation to fear God tacked on at the end. The writer of Ecclesiastes recognizes that there is something within all of us that knows there is something more than the maddening realities of time, randomness, and death. There is more than what is “under the sun”:
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and
drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11-14)
We all know in the depths of our soul that we are made for something more, more than just returning to dust. Eternity is placed in our hearts by God’s design. Yet, the problem is that we don’t always see clearly this eternal plan. We don’t know how things work out in the same way that God does. Rather, we only see the tragedies in front of us under the sun. In other words, we aren’t in control. We don’t know what comes next. The eternal plan is beyond our ability to comprehend. That’s a frightening thing. To not know what is beyond the horizon, to not see the horrors awaiting around the corner, is truly humbling and disheartening. But in this same text, there is hope. In our daily toil (which sometimes feels like meaningless work), there are opportunities for joy and satisfaction. This is God’s gift to us. In all the randomness, there are daily beauties to behold: breath in the lungs, the chirping of the birds, little accomplishments in mundane tasks, the smile of a friend, or the taste of delicious food. Truly, recognizing that we are not in control and that we don’t know what comes next frees us up to enjoy the daily blessings that are given from God’s hand. There is loveliness today that I can enjoy. There are marvelous gifts for which to give thanks.
There is also the hope and confidence that we can have in knowing that God does in fact know the end from the beginning. He is working everything together, and his plans are secure. He is unchanging and purposeful. This is why we fear him and why we can trust in him. This truth makes sense of the concluding words of the book: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Because God is in control of his eternal purposes and because he is in control of my life, there is little use in trying to figure out what is beyond our grasp. There is no use in predicting the future; there is no use in trying to manipulate the outcomes of the events in our lives. Rather, being faithful today, obeying God today, enjoying the gifts of today, and fearing God today are all things that are in my control. The outcomes are up to God. The eternal plan is in his hands.
In Matthew 6, Jesus reminds us of the same truth that God is in control. He provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and so surely he gives us the good gifts that we need. Jesus gives us similar advice to what we learn in Ecclesiastes: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:33-34).
We can seek comfort in odds and predictions and percentages or in our plans, but ultimately that is a futile pursuit. However, if we seek God and his will for us today and if we trust in him today, we can be confident in his provision. He will control the outcome; he will provide what is needed. His plans are secure even when life under the sun is not. In trouble and sorrow, God has given us a beautiful gift to enjoy called “today,” and he has placed eternity in our hearts for us to know that he is the one ruling over the uncertain “tomorrow.”

Proverbs: The Foolishness of Christ’s Wisdom

What is the key to success in this life? What does it mean to be wise? The book of Proverbs provides a clear and resounding answer that is perhaps summed up well by Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
That seems simple enough; trust in the Lord and his wisdom, and he will bless. Fear him and follow his ways, and everything will turn out well. That theme is a persistent one in Proverbs. The righteous are lifted up with success and blessing, but the wicked will falter. Those who rely on God’s wisdom will stand firm.
Some of the wisdom in the book of Proverbs is fairly conventional and obvious. The truth that working hard generally leads to better outcomes is no surprise to anyone. The benefit of seeking advice from wise counselors is a matter of common sense. Yet, there is also a host of wisdom found in Proverbs that is not as overtly practical or generally accepted. For instance, Proverbs teaches us that it is better to be poor and have integrity than it is to be a rich person who is crooked (15:16; 19:1; 28:6). While this is not too difficult to accept for us as God’s people, this is not wise by the world’s standards; if it was, then the world would live this way. Yet, the world often pursues wealth and fame and status without giving much consideration at all to integrity. And we see many successful people who are devoid of righteous character. So is it really better to be poor and righteous? Is it truly better to trust in God?

Wisdom that is even more shocking and counterintuitive is offered in passages like Proverbs 20:22:
“Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you.”
Doesn’t it just make good sense to get even with your enemies? To protect yourself from future harm by showing them that you mean business? Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t it fair and just to repay evil? Not according to Proverbs. Proverbs 25:21-22 takes this even further:
for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.”
Do not simply refrain from returning evil to enemies; rather, actually serve them and show them intentional kindness. Forgiveness and love is better than revenge. Certainly, that seems to be foolish on the surface. What if your enemy is deceiving you? What if he will take advantage of your kindness? This advice from Proverbs does not seem to be primed to help things go well for someone who follows it. It seems to actually empower enemies to do greater damage. What is wise about that?
Another radical teaching concerns humility. In the book of Proverbs, humility is the true way to honor and success:
“The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” (Proverbs 22:4)
“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,
and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,

This nugget of wisdom is particularly questionable, at least from a worldly standard. Who has ever gotten rich by being meek and serving? Who has ever preserved their life by lowering themselves? What about survival of the fittest? What about taking what is mine?
Does the world really work the way that Proverbs says that it does? Proverbs 19:22-23 tells us, “What is desired in a man is steadfast love, and a poor man is better than a liar. The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm.” However, life seems a little murkier than the black and white picture that the book sometimes presents because things don’t always seem to work out for the righteous. Those who fear the Lord do face harm. Most people seem to desire qualities besides steadfast love. The wicked prosper, the poor are abused, and the humble are trampled upon. Sometimes the bad guys win, and the poor person stays poor. What are we to do with Proverbs?
Although there are no specific Messianic prophecies or references to Jesus in Proverbs, I cannot help but think about him as I read through the wisdom provided in this book of Spirit- inspired literature. Jesus perfectly fits the description of the righteous man as portrayed in Proverbs. He turns from evil and love his enemies; he forgives and always clings to the truth. He is generous to the poor and speaks up for the weak. He works diligently and fears the Lord and walks in humility. Even so, Jesus was not a man of riches and life and honor. He was a man of sorrows without a place to lay his head. His integrity and steadfast love did not make things go well for him, and it did not make him desirable. Where did Jesus’ meekness and love of enemies and commitment to truth get him? It placed him on an instrument of torture, executed as a shameful criminal. In the eyes of the watching world, Jesus died a fool. The way of Proverbs did not end in success for him. He gained no riches or honor in this life.

Proverbs 16:1-8 reminds us, however, that our sovereign God is in total control even when the wicked make plans for evil and seem to be winning in the world:
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished. By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil. When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.”
The Lord can use even the wicked to establish his purposes. The evil will be punished and iniquity will be atoned for and conquered by steadfast love. Man may plan to thwart God’s wisdom, but God’s will shall prevail. Those who commit their work to the Lord will be established. The cross and the resurrection are the ultimate vindication of this principle. Jesus wholly devoted himself to the work of God and was exalted in power even when the plans of the wicked appeared to have triumphed. While his humility did not result in riches and honor and life on this earth, he was raised to greater riches and honor and glory in his resurrection. The righteousness of his indestructible life prevailed over wicked plans. The foolishness of his love of enemies and his sacrificial humility was shown to be wise beyond measure.
Indeed, Paul reminds us that the way of the cross is foolishness from the perspective of the world: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it
is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:18- 20).
Trusting God’s wisdom does not always result in vindication and success in this life, but it will surely bring riches and honor in the life to come. The way of Jesus is the true way of wisdom in this world: walking in integrity, pursuing humility and kindness, loving enemies, and serving the weak. So when the Bible tells us that the Lord will make our paths straight when we trust in him, that path leads straight to the cross. That may mean a shameful death or ridicule or poverty or intense suffering. That path may mean being displayed as a fool to the eyes of the world, but that path will also lead to life with Jesus, and it will end in eternal riches of his gracious glory beyond measure or imagination.
“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” (Proverbs 30:5)

Psalms: Blessed to Bless the Nations

The book of Psalms, the songbook of God’s people, bursts with strong emotions directed toward the Lord of all creation. Joy, lament, hope, desire, desperation, mourning, wonder, and a wide range of human attitudes and experiences in relation to God are on display. One of the central themes in the Psalms, though, is the desire of God’s people to be blessed. Over and over, we see the Psalmists cry out for blessing, for steadfast love, for mercy, and for the presence of God. There is a deep desire to be known and seen and blessed the Holy One of Israel.
We know that God does indeed bless his people richly. He bestows grace upon grace. His paternal love shines forth with a passion to give good gifts to his children. But why does he bless? What is the deepest foundation of his motivation to bless an unworthy people? And what should our motivations in asking blessings of God be? What should be the root of intentions in pleading for blessing?
Psalm 67 provides some answers. In the first two verses, the Psalmist eloquently expresses a desire for the people of Israel to be blessed by God:
“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.” (Psalm 67:1-2)
The first verse echoes the Aaronic priestly blessing given in Numbers 6:24-26 that the High Priest would pronounce over the people of Israel. Surely, God’s people need his face to shine upon them. They need to see him in his glory and grace. They need his blessings and his bright presence leading them on. Yet, the request for blessing is not merely one rooted in selfish neediness. Psalm 67:2 reveals a deeper reason for wanting to be blessed—”that your way be known on the earth, your saving power among all nations.” This line reflects Israel’s ultimate purpose as God’s chosen people. In a special way, they were to be blessed by God in order to bless the nations around them. They were to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), serving as God’s representatives to the world. Through Israel, God’s way and his power to deliver were to be revealed. As God blessed them with his presence and grace, they were supposed to channel that out among the nations as a display of God’s character and holiness. When the nations looked at Israel, they were to see a glimpse of the beauty of the face of God.
This becomes even more evident as we continue reading in Psalm 67:
“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!” (Psalm 67:3-7)
Does the Psalmist ask for blessing for Israel selfishly? No, his greater desire is that all the peoples know and praise God. He repeats it four times in just a few short verses. The writer here wants the nations to experience the sweet joy and gladness and fear of knowing God, and he wants God to receive the praise he deserves among all peoples in the earth. The nations cannot be truly happy unless they are praising God. All peoples and nations exist for the praise of the glorious God of Israel.

The Lord doesn’t bless us because we are good; he blesses us to make his goodness known in all the earth. When his face shines upon us and when he gives gracious gifts to us, it is for the purpose of reflecting his light to those around us. God’s blessings fill us up so that we have gracious gifts to give others in the name of God. Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:14-16 in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
This statement comes right after Jesus talks about what it looks like to be blessed by God. In light of those generous and abundant blessings, our mission is to bless others so that others may see and glorify the Father in heaven, who is the giver of every good thing.
If we only ask for blessings from God for our own sake, we are neglecting God’s glory, his global purposes in the world, and love for our neighbor. If blessings flow to our hand and stop there, we have not truly understood who God is. He is deserving of all admiration and praise, and his name should be made known among all. And if we are hiding that light or hoarding our blessings, then we portray a dangerous apathy in our hearts toward others. The nations and our neighbors cannot truly be glad and they can never have joy unless they know God and praise him. Thus, if we love God and love others, we will make him known. We will bless because he has blessed us.

Viewing blessing in this way and seeing the world in such a way should drastically change our perception of the gifts that God gives us each day. If the deepest desire of my heart is to praise God and see him praised by the whole world, the blessings of my food, my car, my house, my job, my opportunities, my talents, my money, my connections, and everything else become about fueling my part in God’s grand global mission. In all of the good things in my life, my eye is always on how this gift can be used to make God seen more clearly and worshipped more fully in the world. My aim is always that all the peoples of the earth praise God. My mission is the gladness of the entire world in God. God blesses us to bless the world so that his name is praised!
“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

Job: God’s Presence—Burden or Blessing?

When sorrow strikes and tragedy occurs, the common response of many sufferers is to point out the seeming absence of God. If he was here, this never would have happened. If he had not forsaken me, surely this trial would not be pressing in on me. If only God was present! Where are you, Lord? Are you even real? Do you even care? Or, are you aloof, standing off in some faraway place, indifferent to the problems of your creation?
While this may be a natural reaction for those enduring difficult circumstances, one of the most well-known sufferers did not always necessarily feel this way as he was crying out to God. In fact, Job sometimes felt the exact opposite amidst his misery. Job loses his wealth, his children, and his health, yet in Job 7, he certainly does not feel forgotten by God. Notice what he says:
“I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of mankind? Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be” (Job 7:16-21).
What is Job’s problem here? Does he feel as if God is absent? No, rather describes a kind of entrapment, an imprisonment under the watchful eyes of God. For Job, God is too present

because he cannot escape his testing, and he cannot avoid his apparent judgment. In other words, why does God care so much about what we do that he must always be watching and testing us? If God is so big and powerful, doesn’t he have better things to do than to monitor little creatures like us? For Job, God’s presence is burdensome, and he feels like a burden to God as well. He can’t even swallow his own spit without God noticing. In Job’s mind, it seems as if some failure has placed him in the crosshairs of God’s testing, yet he still feels innocent and undeserving of such immense suffering. In verses 16 and 21, it is clear that Job would prefer death than all this attention. He just wants it to be over; he just wants to be left alone. Basically, Job thinks, “If I am such a burden to you God that you have to make me suffer so much, why don’t you just end my life?” Weighty despair reigns in the heart of Job. God’s presence has become too much. He’d prefer a God who is detached and distant.
What Job doesn’t realize, however, is that God is not punishing him. He is not taking cruel pleasure in watching his every move to see if he trips up. In fact, the reader knows what Job does not: God is delighting in his servant and is watching him with love and compassion. While Job never comes to understand the exact reasons why he suffers greatly, he does learn a valuable lesson about God that shifts his perspective on the ever-present, ever-watching nature of the Lord.
After long complaints, prayers, and arguments between Job and his friends, God finally enters into the scene and answers Job in a powerful whirlwind. Take note of some of the things the Lord proclaims to Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?”
38:4-5)
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (Job 38:22)
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the does? Can you number the months that they fulfill, and do you know the time when they give birth, when they crouch, bring forth their offspring, and are delivered of their young?” (Job 39:1-3)
“Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?” (Job 39:26-27)
In these passages, God pointedly lets Job know that he sees and controls things in the universe that are quite beyond man’s ability and viewpoint. He laid the very foundations of the earth and knows every measurement of our cosmos. He controls the snow and all the forces of weather. He knows when each mountain goat gives birth, and it’s by his power alone that the hawk flies. And these are just a few examples among many others that the Lord lists. In this humbling encounter with God, what does Job learn?
First, this kind of cosmic tour reminds Job that he is not the center of the universe, and he’s not the ultimate center of God’s attention. While he may feel like he’s got a target on his back, the Lord reminds him of the millions of happenings in God’s good world that God is overseeing, controlling, and working in for his purposes. There’s more going on in the world than just what is happening to Job. In comparison to all that God is doing and has done, Job is quite small.
Secondly, Job is able to see that God has a much bigger perspective than he does. He has no clue why he is suffering and feels like it is a great injustice, but God sees the grander plan. Since God is present in all places at all times and sees all of his creation, he is a much better judge of what is right and wrong. Job cannot see the good that can come from his suffering, but the all-seeing God can. God is intimately aware of everything happening to Job and how all those things can be shaped and molded for a greater purpose. So while Job felt oppressed by God’s all-seeing eyes in Job 7, he comes to see that God’s continual presence is really the only hope for any help or meaning in our suffering. We need a God who understands. If he was indifferent or aloof, he would be no help to us.
Thirdly, Job comes to understand that God is sovereign over even the tiniest details of his world. Not one mountain goat gives birth without God’s sustaining and guiding hand. Not one ostrich roams about except by the Lord’s wisdom. Because God is deeply involved in every aspect of his creation, we can know that he is sovereign over all the details of our lives as well. He orders and runs his world in a beautiful way, so that provides us hope that he cares for us by his powerful hand. This is not burdensome and oppressive; this is good news for sufferers. God knows us and the events of our lives better than we do, and he is compassionate for us as creatures made in his image.
Jesus taught about these same ideas in his life and ministry. In Matthew 10:29-31, he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Fear, worry, and anxiety can be driven out by the knowledge of our sovereign God. Because he sees and knows and cares about each sparrow, surely he is watching over each of us with love. He takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, so we ought to know that he will provide for us, even in our suffering. The ever- present God is not a burden to us; he is a blessing. And in the face of Jesus Christ, who became physically present with humanity and suffered with us, we are forever reminded of a God who not only loves us enough to walk with us in our pain but who is powerful enough to work our suffering for good. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord!

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.

Sunday, January 31 st

Prayer focus topic—Glory of God
Prayer points—As Jesus prayed that God’s name would be hallowed, let us also pray that God’s
name would be honored and glorified. Pray that all we do and all we ask for and all we pray for
will ultimately serve the purpose of glorifying God in heaven. Pray that our lives would be aimed
for this purpose above all other pursuits in our lives.

Saturday, January 30 th

Prayer focus topic—Thanksgiving
Prayer points—Take today to focus on giving thanks in prayer. Thank God for the abundant
physical and spiritual blessings he has given in the past year and the ones he gives us each day.
Pray that he will help us to always have hearts of gratitude toward him.

Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book 2 Chronicles: Prophets, Priests, and Kings

What happens when the worship of the Lord is neglected? What becomes of a nation when Kings abuse their power to build self-exalting empires? What is the fate of a people who live in a land where truth is a scare commodity? These are some of the key questions addressed in 2 Chronicles as the slow decay of Judah is recounted. Inevitably, their faithlessness leads to conquest at the hands of Babylon. This is a story of a people turning from their God, but it is also a story of prophets, priests, and kings. This is a history of Judah, but the main players are prophets, priests, and kings, who all had a great role to play in preserving the faithfulness of the people of God. Prophets were charged with the mission of speaking the truth of God’s Word to those in power, even when the message was wildly unpopular. Priests were designated as the holy representatives of God to the people and of the people to God; they offered sacrifice and were responsible for the proper worship of the Lord and of the service of the temple. And of course, kings were to rule wisely and humbly over the nation, guiding them in the ways of the Lord.
In 2 Chronicles, we read of the calamitous consequences resulting from the failures of the leaders. In 2 Chronicles 18, we see four-hundred prophets simply telling the king what he wants to hear; it’s hinted that this has become commonplace in both Israel and Judah. The holy priesthood falters as well, allowing idol worship and unclean things even in the temple, in addition to failing to keep the holy feast days and observe Passover. Their wickedness is summed up in 2 Chronicles 36:14:

“All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem.”
While many prophets and priests are neglectful of their duties, the rulers of the people, the kings, display great acts of evil also. Manasseh burns his own children and many more are similarly violent and idolatrous. The picture is clear. God’s people have been deeply corrupted, starting with even the religious and national leaders.
Yet even amidst all of this chaos and rebellion, 2 Chronicles also presents us with several scattered stories throughout the book of flawed, yet courageous leaders who set their heart to do what was right despite being surrounded by wickedness.
In contrast to the lying prophets of 2 Chronicles 18, the prophet Micaiah responds with the difficult truth, proclaiming “As the Lord lives, what my God says, that I will speak” (18:14). Others like Shemaiah, Hanani, and Azariah confront kings by telling them to turn to God and to forsake their evil ways. They boldly proclaim God’s Word in places where the truth is hated. They offer a glimmer of hope and a call to obedience as they seek to right the course of the nation.
There are faithful priests too in 2 Chronicles. The priest Jehoiada is a striking example of courageous devotion to God. He rebels against the illegitimate Queen Athaliah and leads the people to restore young Joash as the rightful king. He then institutes sweeping reforms by cutting off Baal worship, by organizing the priests and Levites in their service, and by turning the people back to God:

“And Jehoiada made a covenant between himself and all the people and the king that they should be the Lord’s people” (23:16).
All the days of his life, he led the king in the ways of the Lord; when Jehoiada died, Joash turned to wickedness. Jehoiada’s son, the priest Zechariah, is the lone force standing up to this evil:
“ Then the Spirit of God clothed Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, and he stood above the people, and said to them, “Thus says God, ‘Why do you break the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord” (24:20-21).
Zechariah boldly stands up for the cause of holiness and truth and is stoned for it in the court of the house of the Lord. Even as the service and worship of the Lord is often tainted and tarnished and repudiated, men like Jehoiada and Zechariah risked their own lives to honor the Lord.
In addition to the prophets and priests, there are also several moments in 2 Chronicles of incredible humility and devotion to God from Judah’s kings. Despite most of these rulers swerving into idolatry and wickedness, there are periods of holy triumph. In 2 Chronicles 20, for instance, Jehoshaphat leads the people in prayer, fasting, and song, and he trusts totally in God to win a battle for them, demonstrating amazing humility in his prayer:
“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (20:12).

This faith of the king results in a time of rejoicing in victory and in the worship of the Lord. Another king, Hezekiah, guides the nation to celebrate Passover for the first time in decades, instructing the people to work around the clock to make preparations. Even wicked Manasseh at one point humbles himself before God in prayer. In 2 Chronicles, we get glimpses of the victory, the rejoicing, and the true worship that comes when a faithful king sets his heart to humbly serve God and shepherd the people. Amidst generations and generations of failure, there are flashes of hope. There are echoes of the beauty of faithfulness to God.
In the original Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament, 2 Chronicles was the last book in the canon. It served as a summation and repetition of the story of God’s people, a reminder of the road to destruction and captivity in Babylon. As ancient readers studied this book of God’s Word, perhaps they were struck by those glimmers of hope in the stories of those rare, courageous leaders. Perhaps they thought, “We need a unwavering, truth-telling prophet like Micaiah. We need to have a purifying, sacrificial priest like Zechariah or Jehoiada. We truly need a prayerful and humble king to serve like Jehoshaphat or Hezekiah or Asa or Josiah.” I believe the book of 2 Chronicles is designed to point us to the desperate need for faithful prophets, priests, and kings. God’s people need someone who will tell God’s truth no matter what. We need someone holy and pure to represent God and to go on our behalf to offer proper sacrifices. We need a king to shepherd us and guide us in humble obedience. Great things happen in 2 Chronicles when prophets, priests, and kings step up to the task and fulfill their divinely appointed role. Yet, even the best of these also failed. Even when we read of the most righteous kings, we also read of their stumbles, their pride, and their disobedience.
Therefore, 2 Chronicles reminds us that what we truly need is a perfect prophet, priest, and king. The Gospels present Jesus Christ as distinctly fulfilling all three of these roles. He is a

prophet and teacher, relentlessly calling the people and the religious leaders back to true faithfulness to God. He is the great High Priest, holy and pure as he cleanses the temple and offers the perfect sacrifice of himself on our behalf. He is the truly humble and prayerful king, relying totally on the Father as he rules and shepherds his people. Even our best leaders will falter at times, but Christ never wavers in truth, in purity, or in his kingly authority. He alone is the trustworthy leader. He is the better Zechariah. He is the superior Micaiah. He is the greater Jehoshaphat. Thanks be to God for a prophet, priest, and king who never fails his people!

Friday, January 29 th :

Prayer focus topic—Churches of Christ in New England
Prayer points—Let’s focus in prayer on our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in New England.
Pray that God will bless the churches of New England and will help them grow and reach out
with the gospel. Pray for continued unity, fellowship, and encouragement among the churches in
this region. Pray for the leaders of those congregations to stay faithful and true to the Word. Pray
that God will raise up new ministers, missionaries, elders, leaders, and servants for the Church in
New England so that the kingdom will grow numerically and spiritually. Pray that we will be
able to stay connected despite many events being cancelled this year due to Covid.

Thursday, January 28 th

Prayer focus topic—Enemies
Prayer points—As Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute
us, let us spend this day specifically praying for those who are opposed to us. Think about those
personally and broadly who might be classified in your mind as an enemy: maybe a co-worker,
or even a family member, or someone who has hurt us, or someone in an opposing political
party, or maybe even the enemies of our nation. Pray that all these will come to know Christ.
Pray that they will repent and experience mercy and forgiveness that we know through Jesus.
Pray that we can see them as Jesus did and reach out to even those who mistreat us or disagree.

Wednesday, January 27 th

Prayer focus topic—Goat Ministry in India
Prayer points—Thank God that we get to be a small part of the goat ministry that helps widows
in India. Pray that God would bless our efforts and our funds and that all that we give will beused wisely for the sake of those in need. Pray for those widows that receive these goats that they
will be blessed physically and spiritually.

Tuesday, January 26 th

Prayer focus topic—Widows and Orphans
Prayer points—We know that one of God’s plans for the Church is to take care of widows and
orphans. Pray for God’s help as we seek to do that this year. Pray that we as the Church will look
for ways to support the children who are most vulnerable in our community, country, and world.
Pray that the Church here would continually be a safe family for those who have no spiritual
family. Ask for wisdom to know the best ways that we can serve the widows and orphans in our
congregation and in the world.

Monday, January 25 th

Prayer focus topic—Free Day
Prayer points—Let’s pray that God would bless Free Day this year. Thank God for the
opportunity to serve others, and ask for God’s help that the items we give and the service we
render will bear fruit for his kingdom and display the light and love of Jesus. Pray also for the
various benevolence works that we support throughout the year.

Sunday, January 24 th

Prayer focus topic—Unbelieving/ Unfaithful Family Members
Prayer points—Today, let’s focus on praying for our immediate and distant relatives who do not
know Christ or who have strayed from God. Pray that we can have wisdom and courage to reach
out with the truth of God’s Word to those we love. Ask that these will be drawn closer to Christ
by our example and by the circumstances of their lives. Pray that we will have peace and trust in
God in these situations.

Saturday, January 23 rd

Prayer focus topic—Covid Concerns
Prayer points—Let’s pray on this day about the many concerns we have related to Covid. Pray
for the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines. Pray for the safety and health of all, especially
those most vulnerable to the virus. Pray for those grieving. Pray for those struggling financially.
Ask God to help us know how to love our neighbors during this time.