Archive for September, 2015

Esther 1

Esther 1 has King Ahasuerus on the throne ruling his great empire from Susa.  He was a pretty proud guy, and “he showed the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his greatness for…180 days. The first feast was for all the government officials, where Ahasuerus showed off the glory and splendor of the riches of his kingdom. He also threw a feast lasting for seven days.  This second feast was for the citizens of the capital city Sushan.  It was a big party.  He had inherited the vast Persian Empire from his father, Darius.  And he wanted to show things off.

The basic reason for these feasts was, of course, pride. The king wanted to impress his subjects with a great display of his own wealth and power and majesty and generosity. But there was still a third feast.  “Queen Vashti also gave a feast for the women in the palace”.  But then a problem occurs within the royal family.  King Ahasuerus demands that Vashti display her beauty before the guests at the feast.  “But Queen Vashti refused to come….At this the king became enraged, and his anger burned within him”.

 There is a problem in the castle.  And it didn’t happen in private.  This was a very public refusal, and the leaders under the king come with a strong recommendation that “the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt”.  Time to put a stop to this.  They did not want this lack of submission by the queen to become an excuse, or worse yet, a standard for how women would relate to their husbands.  They want to nip this in the bud and stop any idea that women can refuse a request from their husband.  We won’t get into the weeds around submission here except to say that submission does not mean that a wife must obey her husband if he commands her to sin. Every command to submit on a human level is conditioned by the higher obligation to obey God before man.

The king’s advisors suggest that he “let a royal order go out from him….that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus”.  If she wants to disobey the king’s request, she was to be cut off as the queen.   “And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike”.  This is Old Testament law for a different time than this.  Paul tells us that men are to love their wives, and wives to respect their husbands.  No matter the law, there is a problem in the kingdom and it has to do with relationships.  Men need to step up and lead well – not by demands – but through servant leadership and love!

Nehemiah 13

Nehemiah 13 has the governor and leader continuing to celebrate their new city. “On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people.”  He wants them to know the Word of God, as it is the source of life.  But things began to slip as Nehemiah left Jerusalem and went back to see the king. “While this was taking place, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I went to the king”.  He returned to see Artaxerxes after a long time in Jerusalem.  And while the leader was gone, the mice began to play.  He comes back to a mess.

It started inside the temple where one of his adversaries, Tobiah, had managed to get a chamber room of his own.  He had infiltrated the city.  There were some other things that hadn’t been done once Nehemiah left town to check in with King Artaxerxes.  It didn’t take Nehemiah long to call people out when he got back and saw what had been happening, or failing to get done.  “I confronted the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” And I gathered them together and set them in their stations”.

Nehemiah pleads with God to not hold him accountable for what those around him were guilty of.  “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service”.  He wants to be sure God recognizes the good he has accomplished along with the failure that some under his leadership have fallen to.  Nehemiah continues to make things right.  “I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day”?  They were letting outsiders bring goods to sell into the city on the Sabbath, and Nehemiah shuts that down.

He had yet more trouble in that men of Judah had been marrying women from the outside.  This has gotten them into major trouble in the past, and yet they have once again reverted to this violation of God’s law.  Nehemiah was furious.  “I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair”.  From this strong reaction of Nehemiah, we gather he considered this to be the most dangerous of their sins – pursing ungodly romance, and getting involved in romantic relationships God had said “no” to.  He takes strong and decisive action to make an example out of some to save the people overall.

Nehemiah 12

Nehemiah 12 has the celebration continuing around the completion of the wall around Jerusalem.  He gathers the Levites to come to the city.  The Levites had many responsibilities in the life and worship of Israel, but one of the most important jobs they had was to lead the people in songs of worship and praise to God.  According to Guzik There are at least twenty-two different musical instruments mentioned in the Bible, including the harp, the lyre (an ancient guitar), horns, trumpets, flutes, tambourines, drums, cymbals, and bells.  The Levites were specially appointed to use these instruments to lead the people in worshipping God through singing.

Nehemiah is dedicating the wall as part of the celebration.  “I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks”.  Notice that the singers sang loudly. They had to be heard, because as glorious as the instruments were, the people would follow the lead of the singers in worship. They were overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving, considering all God had done.  What a sight as Nehemiah has the choir split in half and go opposite directions walking on the wall.

“The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away”.  Their worship was a testimony to others, and what others heard was not so much the singing itself as the joy. We often worry about others hearing us sing; but what God wants to hear and what others should hear is not so much your singing, but your joy.  We are told to make a joyful noise, not sing like an opera singer!  Nehemiah wanted to be sure his enemies not only saw the wall, but heard the joy of the people for accomplishing the task and being in God’s presence.

There was a lot going on during this celebration and dedication:

  • This was a day of giving. People brought their offerings, firstfruits, tithes to the storehouse of the Levites, and they did it with joy because they enjoyed supporting the priests and Levites ministering on their behalf.
  • This was a day of purity. It was an ongoing concern, not a one-time ceremony.
  • It was a day of consecration. Holy things were set apart for the Levites, speaking of the separation unto God.

What a day of celebration it was.  Nehemiah had come back to town and not only created the vision, he led the building, protected his people, and now leads them to celebrate the victory!

Nehemiah 11

Nehemiah 11 brings another problem to deal with.  “Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem”.  The folks who helped him rebuild the wall and revitalize the city were there, but the population was small and there wasn’t enough mass to assure longevity.  It wasn’t enough to see the city walls rebuilt and the spiritual renewal of the people of Jerusalem; now they had to focus on bringing more people into the city.  For more than seventy years, Jerusalem had been nothing but a ghost town. Now, over the last eighty or so years, it has been rebuilt. But the city still needed more people.

The leaders were setting an example by living in Jerusalem.  Leaders do set the standard for how they want others to live.  So Nehemiah had that going for him.  But even so, there was still a shortage.  So they decide to put a lottery system in place to bring in more.  One out of ten would be selected to move from the surrounding area into the city of Jerusalem. So, in the end, at least ten percent of Judah’s population would live in Jerusalem.  People willingly participated, and a number of them moved into the city willingly.

There were some challenges that came along with that move.  Here are a few that these people had to endure:

  • You had to be willing to give up what you had outside the city
  • You had to be willing to leave behind friends and family
  • You had to endure the problems the rebuilt city had. It still needed a lot of work.
  • You were putting yourself in the cross hairs of the enemy

It is questionable that Nehemiah could have gotten the people to just voluntarily pick up and move.  So his use of the lottery seemed a good tool to get them to make the commitment to come to the city.

The balance of the chapter lists out the leaders who were in town.  This extensive list includes tribal leaders (of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), military men, priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and civil and royal servants.  All these men and their families took the lead by choosing to settle in Jerusalem, setting a good example for the rest God’s people to follow.  That is the essence of leadership, which is influence.  These leaders set the example of how they wanted the rest of their folks to live.  It is the only effective way to lead!

Nehemiah 10

Nehemiah 10 lists the names of those who signed the covenant with God.  They had recognized their sin and potential plight, and now come together to take a different course of action by signing this covenant.  It was wonderful for the nation as a whole to feel that something had to be done about the sin problem among them. But it was meaningless unless individuals came forth to say “we will do something about this.” Here are the leaders (84 in all) willing to put their name on the line for the covenant before God.  Leaders willing to stand tall and firm in their resolve to change the path the nation has been on.

So Nehemiah leads them to “enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes”.  It was for all the people.  The leaders are called out, but this applies to all.  In making the covenant, they agreed to accept a curse from God if they did not obey His law. They accepted the curse as a form of His correction, to bring them back to obedience.   This is a serious step.  They have to walk in obedience.

The covenant covers a few key areas where they have struggled in the past:

  1. We will be faithful to God when it comes to our romantic relationships
  2. We will be faithful to God when it comes to doing business
  3. We will be faithful to God when it comes to supporting God’s work

They are going to address whom they would marry, how they would work together, and how they will give.  And they commit to giving as a way of life. “We obligate ourselves to bring the firstfruits”.

 Bottom line is they committed to putting God first.  They simply did two things. First, they agreed to give as God had commanded (the firstborn, firstfruits, and the tithe). Second, they agreed to give as the special need required (the one-third of a shekel tax and the wood).  God promised to bless this giving of the firstfruits and firstborn.  They make it clear that they will support God’s house.  “We will not neglect the house of our God.”  It shows the depth of their faith.  If you hold on to money so tightly that you will not be a giver, than you have revealed where your heart is when it comes to money.

Nehemiah 9

Nehemiah 9 has a recap of the story of the people of Israel.  The leaders bring the people together and “the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads…..stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers….read from the Book of the Law”.  Nehemiah and his leadership team have the people focused on getting right with God.  After the wall was completed, after the wall was working, after the people had heard and obeyed God’s Word, after the Holy Spirit was doing a significant work in the lives of people – now there is a scene of dramatic, humble repentance.

The people are led to confess their sins.  The English word sin comes from the idea “to miss the mark.” A sin might miss the target by an inch, or it might miss it by ten feet – but it is still a sin either way. We sin when we do what God has told us not to do (telling us either in His Word, in our conscience, or through legitimate authority), or when we do not do what God has told to do (telling us in Word, conscience, or authority). Not all sin is the same, but all sin is sin.  The people see that they are guilty of sin, themselves and their ancestors.

They are also reminded of God’s mercy and grace.  “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them”.  God has stood by them through thick and thin.  He never left them, although they certainly left Him.  And unfortunately, this describes the reality of man’s journey on this earth.  “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets….committed great blasphemies….did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey”.

This describes the cycle of our relationship with God.  We sometimes feel as if God has gotten tired of us; that we can’t ask him to forgive us for something He has forgiven us for so many times before. But God never gets tired of us, and never turns away the repentant heart.  The remnant had to come to this point of understanding where they were ready to write a covenant with God once again.  “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing”.  It needed to be formal – even writing it down – to commit themselves to His ways.

Nehemiah 8

Nehemiah 8 has the people gathering.  “Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly….he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand”.  There was a return to God’s Word after many years of abandonment.  And it wasn’t just Ezra but “the ears of all the people were attentive.”   They were focused on listening and hearing God’s Word.

Ezra was up on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose surrounded by a group of men on his right and his left who stood beside him.  Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people….“he opened it all the people stood”.  There was a worshipful attitude among the people.  God’s Word has the power to impact people if we only read it and listen with our heart.  “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God….they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground”.

There was a group of Levites who were among the people as Ezra read God’s Word.  These 13 men “helped the people to understand the Law….they read from the book….clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading”.  Remember that God’s Word had not been read or heard for decades.  So it was important for the people to not only hear the Word, but to have someone help them understand it clearly.  These Levites helped make the Word understandable so it could do its work on the people.

But as the people heard God’s Word, they were convicted and began to mourn and weep.  But Nehemiah doesn’t want that to be the outcome of God’s Word – at least not now.  He tells them “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength”.  He tells them to celebrate God’s Law and His glory.  The Levites were able to calm the people down  and they then continued “day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God”.

Nehemiah 7

Nehemiah 7 has a change of leadership with the appointment of Hanani and Hananiah.  Nehemiah wasn’t in this for political glory. He had done a work, and now he could let it go. God would still use him in Jerusalem, but he knew it wasn’t his place to stay in authority.  He hands off oversight to these two men, whom he called “a more faithful and God-fearing man than many”.  Hanani is Nehemiah’s brother and was the one who first told him about the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem. His initiative and concern made him well qualified to govern.

We need to remember that many folks who aren’t all that gifted – they can’t sing, they can’t remember a bunch of Bible verses, they don’t have a knack for teaching, and so forth – can still be used greatly of God if they are faithful and fear God. On the other hand, many terribly gifted people may always be frustrated in serving God, if they are not faithful and fearing God.  Nehemiah gives guidance “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot”.  He reminds the people that the enemy is still alive and well outside the gates.

He also tells them to “appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes”.  In the Christian life, often a victory is won and later lost because there was no guard. An enemy may come in because we are not watching. Walls can be climbed if there is no one there to stop the enemy, but an enemy is easily turned back from a wall by a guard.  Nehemiah has helped put a plan in place to protect the city now that is is rebuilt.

But he notices more.  Now that the walls were rebuilt, Nehemiah still wanted to see how he can be a blessing to the people of God and the city of God. He noticed that the population was low and there were many abandoned houses.  He takes count of those inside the city, and sees a low population and not a lot of work done to the homes inside the walls.  The walls weren’t all that important; what was important was the benefit the walls could have in the lives of God’s people enabling them to live in peace and security.

Nehemiah 6

Nehemiah 6 has the outside making another run at trying to derail the rebuilding of the walls.  The evil trio of Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem don’t want that wall completed, and they know it is getting close.  So they send a messenger to Nehemiah saying “Come and let us meet together”.  Nehemiah doesn’t fall for their plot, as they “intended to do me harm”.  Their fear tactics aren’t working, so they decide to try some physical harm.  But Nehemiah doesn’t fall for it.  “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down”.  He is not going to let them derail him.

But they didn’t give up easily and continued as “they sent to me four times….and I answered them in the same manner”.  It finally sinks in that Nehemiah isn’t coming so “Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand”.  This letter described Nehemiah’s attempt to take over the kingdom and rebel against the king.  It was a lie, but a different approach to get Nehemiah to stop finishing the wall.  But Nehemiah replied “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind”.  He’s not falling for it.

They decide to try another tactic.  “They are coming to kill you by night”.  That’s a pretty direct attack.  But Nehemiah says “Should such a man as I run away”?  He is God’s servant doing God’s work.  He has nothing to be afraid of.  Nehemiah had gone to the prophet to see what he should do but found out the enemies had gotten to him too.  “He had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him”.  They obviously would stoop to any and every level to try and stop the wall project.

That plan was to get Nehemiah to sin against God’s law.  “For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me”.  But God opened his eyes to the plot and Nehemiah doesn’t fall for it.  And the wall is finished.  The people stayed on task and completed the work.  “When all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God”.  Nehemiah has led them to success, and the enemies were afraid.

Nehemiah 5

Nehemiah 5 has our leader facing a different kind of threat.  “There arose a great outcry of the people”.  This one comes from inside, not outside.  There were some who were taking advantage of others by selling them food to keep families alive.  There was a famine, and food has suddenly become the currency of the day.  And some were being forced to have their kids sold as slaves just to get food to eat.  Nehemiah was not happy.  “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words”.  He is not a happy camper.

Warren Buffet says the most important meeting he has each day is the one he has in the mirror with himself.  He may have taken a page out of Nehemiah’s playbook.  “I took counsel with myself”.  Nehemiah stopped and didn’t react to this situation that had him in a boil.  He was wise enough to not act until he had considered the matter carefully.  But once he considered what was happening, “I brought charges against the nobles and the officials”.  He calls them out directly and strongly.

“You are exacting interest” and causing hardship.  Nehemiah “held a great assembly against them”.  He brought the people together and rebuked these leaders in front of the rest of the people.  They didn’t argue.  In fact, “they were silent and could not find a word to say”.  Nehemiah shuts them up and tells them to return the fields and vineyards they had taken from the people.  And it wasn’t a suggestion.  Nehemiah “called the priests and made them swear”.  He wasn’t taking any chances that they wouldn’t follow through.

Word got back to Artaxerxes and he appointed Nehemiah as governor.  He was a frugal leader, not taking advantage of the taxes that were at his disposal.  He had the right to lord over the people, but “did not do so, because of the fear of God”.  He set an example of servant leadership and served his people well.  But he didn’t do it for self.  He did it for God.  It was about servant obedience in leadership.  “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people”.

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