I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.
“Malchijah the son of Rechab, ruler of the district of Beth-haccherem, repaired the Dung Gate. He rebuilt it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars.” Nehemiah 3:14
Through the Bible: Nehemiah 1-5
I know this doesn’t seem to be a super inspiring verse to blog about. But I was struck by this example of humility in my quiet time this morning. Malchijah (Hebrew for “Yahweh is my King”) is a ruler over a district. But he works shoulder to shoulder with his countrymen. And of all sections for a ruler to repair, he is assigned to the Dung Gate.
The Dung Gate is on the southern side of the Old City of Jerusalem. It leads to the Valley of Hinnom, the ancient garbage dump for the city. So all the filth, trash, refuse and rot of the city passed through the Dung Gate and was dumped in the Valley of Hinnom.
The Valley of Hinnom was also where Judah’s worst kings practiced child sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31). In Jeremiah 19:2-6, the prophet pronounced a curse over the place, and gave it a new name:
“therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” Jeremiah 19:6 ESV
Fast forward 150 years or so. Nehemiah’s work crews are divvying up the assignments. Scripture doesn’t record how they did this, so we don’t know if they drew straws or people volunteered. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone raising their hand and saying “Give me the Dung Gate! Such history! Such prestige! And I love the smell of garbage in the morning!”
So Malchijah probably didn’t volunteer. But if Malchijah ever objected, Scripture doesn’t record it. He put his shoulder to the work and got the dirtiest job done. Maybe he lived up to his name and acknowledged the authority of God in his life.
Because while the Dung Gate wasn’t a very high profile gate, it was necessary. The Jews were committed to keeping the Holy City clean. From their earliest days in the wilderness, God had commanded them to allow no uncleanliness within the camp (see Dt. 23:12-14):
“Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.” Deuteronomy 23:14 ESV
I praise God for the example of humble leaders who roll up their sleeves and do jobs that would seem to be beneath them. I pray I would be that kind of leader.
Oh, and one more thing:
If you go to Jerusalem today, you can visit the Western Wall, the holiest site in all Judaism. It is the only part of the Temple that remains after the Romans destroyed it in AD 70. Wanna guess how you get to the plaza in front of the Western Wall? There’s only one way.
Through the Dung Gate.
For more about the Dung Gate, check out this video from a Messianic Jewish ministry called “Our Jewish Roots.”
...and some of the women had even borne children. Ezra 10:44 ESV
I’m conflicted with Ezra. On one hand, when the officials inform him that the men of Israel have taken foreign wives (a violation of Deuteronomy 7:3), he absolutely does the right thing. He tears his clothes, weeps and fasts, and falls on his face before the Lord.
What I love about this is that Ezra takes ownership for a sin he didn’t commit. Ezra didn’t take a foreign wife. And yet, look at his prayer of repentance:
“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. 7 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. ..
10 “And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11 which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. 12 Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ 13 And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, 14 shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? 15 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.”
That is the heart of a priest, and the character of a leader. He identifies with the people, taking their failures as his own, and accepting punishment for their sin (side note: don’t miss how this points to Jesus, our great High Priest, who also bore the punishment for sins he did not commit!)
But in chapter 10, Ezra listens to the counsel of Shecaniah, one of the other leaders of the people:
3 Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord[a] and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” 5 Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath. (Ezra 10:3-5)
Ezra had spent all night before the Lord, but this advice came from Shecaniah. So did this command come from God, or from Shecaniah? Had Shecaniah also spent all night in intercession? Not once in the text does God speak. So we are left to wonder if Shecaniah heard a clear word from God, which he then passed on to Ezra, or if they are just doing their best to bring the people back into obedience based on how they are reading the Law.
Notice that four times before this, (7:6, 7:28, 8:22, and 8:31), the text emphasized that the hand of the Lord was on the exiles. They had the favor of the king, protection from guards, and things were going really well. So where did Ezra suddenly get the idea that unless all these men put away their foreign wives, God wasn’t going to bless their efforts, when God had clearly blessed everything they had done up to that point?
I appreciate Tara-Leigh Cobble bringing out that scholars are not in agreement about whether this command was from God or whether Ezra was free-styling. And there is some comfort in the theory that they were not actually married, but were cohabitating outside the covenant of marriage.
But I also noticed that the very last line of the book of Ezra is “and some of the women had even borne children.” So, what was the impact on these children when their fathers put them away? The text doesn’t say. But for anyone that has been abandoned by a father, you know there’s a psychic wound there. And if the justification is that God commanded it, that’s just a double whammy. It would be hard to imagine any child developing a heart for God after this.
It made me think of something I heard in a study of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. The Pharisees were absolutely correct in their interpretation of the law when they brought this woman to Jesus. But it is possible to be 100% right about the law of God and be 100% wrong about the character of God. They got the letter, but they missed the spirit. And maybe Ezra made the same mistake.
I’m not satisfied with the ending of Ezra. But maybe it ends that way in order to remind us that even though the exiles are rebuilding Jerusalem, the promise of a new Jerusalem is still to be fulfilled. When we come to our last day of Old Testament reading a few days from now, we will see that the last verse of Malachi is also about children:
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
Beloved, the last word of Ezra is about separation. But the last word of the Old Testament is about restoration. This last word of Ezra just highlights that this is far from the last word.
Sermon preached September 25, 2022; Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, AL. James Jackson, Pastor
I want to warn you at the outset that this may be the most difficult part of Romans to wrap our heads around. Did you know that in 2 Peter 3:!6, the apostle Peter admits that sometimes Paul is hard to understand? I think he was talking about Romans 11!
This week I asked a question on Facebook to help me with this sermon. The question was, can you think of a movie, book, or play where the plot centered around one character pretending to be in love with another character in order to make a third character jealous.
The answers I got said as much about what a diverse group of friends I have as anything else.
I’ve got a couple of English major friends who immediately said things like “Much Ado About Nothing” by Shakespeare. Or Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Leo Tolstoy.
Then there were folks kind of in the middle who suggested movies like Gone With the Wind, where Scarlett pretends to be in love with Ashley Wilkes to make Rhett Butler jealous.
Finally, then there were some more current pop culture fans, who referenced Harry Potter, High School Musical, every Hallmark movie ever, and a line from Friends— WE WERE ON A BREAK!
My personal favorite was from my buddy who said “The Empire Strikes Back. But that got weird in a hurry, because you find out in the third movie that Luke and Leia are brother and sister.”
But the point of that little Facebook poll was to show that this is a plot point that runs all through the history of storytelling. From Wuthering Heights to High School Musical to Bob’s Burgers (thanks, Jordan Bailey)! A man falls in love with a woman and pursues her. The woman loses interest, or the man gets distracted So the man starts showing attention to another woman, or vice versa, hoping that his first true love will realize what she’s lost and come back to him.
Now, I bring this up this morning because believe it or not, this is also a plot point in the greatest love story in history. It’s central to God’s plan for the future of Israel, and it’s the reason we Gentiles have a relationship with God in the first place. It may sound weird, but stick with me, because it’s right here in Scripture.
We are calling this part three of the Israel Trilogy that makes up Romans 9-11. We saw in Romans 9 that God chose Israel from the very beginning to be the people from whom Jesus the Messiah would come.
Then, in chapter 10, Paul lays out what it means to put your trust in Jesus for salvation, and he says it doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, everyone comes to a relationship with Jesus the same way.
So chapter 11 wraps up the Israel trilogy by answering the question, has God permanently rejected the Jews? Are they still God’s chosen people? And what is His plan for their restoration?
The answers are,
No He hasn’t,
yes they are,
and God is going to use us—the Gentiles—to bring the Jews back to himself.
John MacArthur points out that we can know for sure that God isn’t done with Israel for the simple reason that all of His promises to her have not yet been fulfilled. “If God were through with His chosen nation, His Word would be false and His integrity discredited.” (MacArthur, 32).
if God had totally rejected Israel, that would mean that some of God’s promises had failed. And if there is a consistent message from Genesis to maps in the Bible, it is that God can be trusted.
So God has not ultimately rejected Israel. He has a plan for their redemption. And here’s the crazy part: we are part of that plan!
Now, get ready for the plot twist: God’s plan for the restoration of Israel is that He is going to make Israel jealous by offering grace and a relationship with Himself to the Gentiles.
You thought you were just coming to church to hear a sermon this morning, didn’t you? You had no idea that you were a character in the most epic 80’s date movie in the Universe!
Let’s see how this plays out. I want to take you first to a couple of verses in chapter 10 that we didn’t really talk about last week. Turn back to Romans 10. Paul has just laid out how to be saved: If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. That’s how its done. There’s not a different process for the Jews. The law can’t save you. Being a son of Abraham can’t save you. If a Jew puts his faith in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, they will be saved.
But in verse 16 of Romans 10, Paul acknowledges that they (Israel) “have not all obeyed the gospel. They’ve heard the gospel (verse 17), and they’ve understood the gospel (verse 19).
But they rejected the gospel because they rejected Christ.
There’s a scene in Acts 13 where Paul and Barnabas have been preaching in the Jewish synagogue. This was Paul’s pattern. Everywhere he went, he went to the synagogue first. But in Acts 13:44, it says that the Jews [pay attention to the wording here] were “filled with jealousy when they saw the crowds.” And so in verse 46, Paul says,
“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’””
Acts 13:44-47 ESV
And from then on, Paul considered himself the apostle to the Gentiles. I think its fascinating that Acts 13 says the Jews became “jealous.” Because as Paul points out in Romans 10:19, this is exactly what God, through Moses, said would happen.
“But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.””
Romans 10:19 ESV
So, what Paul wrote about in Romans 10 was first prophesied by Moses waaay back in Deuteronomy 32:21. Before Israel had even settled into the Promised Land, Moses prophesied that there would come a day when God would provoke the Jews to jealousy by establishing a relationship with a foolish nation.
Side note: You want to know if America is talked about in Scripture? The answer is yes, Here we are. We are the foolish nation that God’s going to use to make the Jews jealous.
So this sets the stage for Romans 11, where God lays out his plan for restoring Israel. Let’s pick up with the beginning of Romans 11. Let’s look at the first couple of verses. Verses 1-2:
Has God rejected his people? Paul’s answer is a Greek phrase me genoito, which means, “May it never be.” The most polite way we would say it today is “heck, no.” God’s rejection of Israel is not total. There has always been, and always will be, a completed remnant.
Exhibit A is Paul himself. Paul was the greatest missionary of the Christian faith, yet he never considered himself as a Christian. Every time he describes himself, it is as a Jew. Here. Philippians 3. Acts 22:3. Paul always thought of himself as a Jew. And his message is pretty straightforward: If God didn’t reject me, then there is hope for my people.
Exhibit B is Elijah. Look at the rest of verse 2, and into the next verses:
…Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
Paul is reminding his readers of the story of Elijah from the book of 1 Kings. In 1 Kings 19, Elijah has just single-handedly faced down the 450 prophets of Baal, but when Jezebel puts a bounty on Elijah’s head, Elijah has a little bit of a pity party and cries out to God, “Lord they have killed your prophets and demolished your altars, and I’m the only one left.” And God’s response is, “No, you’re not. I kept for myself 7000 men who didn’t bow the knee to Baal.”
So the point is, God ALWAYS preserves a remnant. Verse 5:
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
The point of all this is that God’s rejection of Israel is not total. No matter how bad things get, there will always be a remnant of faithful Jews. But don’t miss verse 5. They are chosen by grace, not because of their righteous deeds. God didn’t do a reality show called “Israel’s Got Goodness” and pick the winners. The remnant is chosen by grace. That’s an object lesson for the rest of us.
There is a believing remnant of Jews today—Jews who acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. The most common term for this group is Messianic Jews, although you may hear the phrase “completed Jews” from time to time.
But when we say remnant, we mean REMNANT. It is a tiny amount. If you go to Israel today, there are around 20,000 Messianic Jews in the country. That was as of 2012, so it may be higher now. 20,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. Which sounds great, but keep in mind that represents .0003% of the total number of Jews in Israel.
There are actually ten times as many Arab Christians in Jordan as there are Jewish Christians in Israel. Worldwide, there are about 300,000 Messianic Jews, compared to about 10-15 million Arab Christians.
This is stunning. Are you starting to feel Paul’s heartache from chapter 9, where he says he has “unceasing anguish” for his kinsmen?
If you go to Israel with me is, there is an almost 100% chance that our tour guide will not be a believer. Both times I’ve gone, our guide hasn’t even been a religiously observant Jew, much less a believer.
Here are these incredibly intelligent guides who have gone through a rigorous training process to be certified as a guide. They know the scriptures backwards and forwards. They can tell us all about the life of Jesus and what happened here and what happened there.
But they aren’t believers themselves. How is that possible? I remember Janice Thayer saying to me, “How can they be around this truth all day, every day, and yet not believe in Jesus?”
And here is the answer in Romans 11:7-8
“What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.””
Romans 11:7-8 ESV
There is a current blindness on the part of the overwhelming majority of Jews today. And according to verse 8, God is the one who blinded them.
It’s been that way since Jesus Himself was on the earth. In Luke 19, right after the triumphal entry, Jesus stopped at a place where He could see the whole city laid out in front of Him. And verse 41 says He wept over it:
“saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.””
Luke 19:42-44 ESV
Sure enough, less than forty years later, the Romans came in and destroyed that city. They lost their temple. They lost their national identity for 2,000 years. They lost their land.
And Jesus said that the way of peace “was hidden from their eyes.” Who did the hiding? God did. God’s plan all along was that Jesus would be the cornerstone that the Jews would stumble over. John 1 said that Jesus came to his own, and his own did not receive Him.
Why? Why would God do that? Why would God give His chosen people a “spirit of stupor and hardened hearts?”
Paul gives the answer in the next section. Read with me, beginning in verse 11:
“So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather, through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”
Romans 11:11-12 ESV
Here’s Paul’s second “me genoito”: Did God make Israel stumble in order that they would fall— meaning, fall completely, and be totally rejected. And Paul says, Absolutely not. Israel stumbled in order that salvation could come to the Gentiles.
And why did salvation come to the Gentiles? Here it is: to make Israel jealous.
I know this bakes your brain a little— it did mine. But Paul says it three times: Once in Romans 10:19, once here in 11:11, and once more in verse 14, where Paul says, “I magnify my ministry among the Gentiles in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.”
That’s the part we play in the greatest love story in the history of the Universe. Our job is to make the Jews jealous.
Listen. Our job is to live lives that are characterized by grace and freedom in Christ. Lives where, when we sing songs like “Jesus Paid it All— all to Him I owe,” we really mean it. Where we realize at the very core of our being that our own righteousness isn’t what makes us right with God.
The gospels say it over and over: I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10).
If the Son of Man sets you free, you are truly free (John 8:36).
Paul says it over and over: “Sin shall not be your master, for you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14)
It was for freedom that Christ set you free (Galatians 5:1)
I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatias 2:20).
God’s plan is that His chosen people, the Jews, will one day look at us and say, “What is with these Christians?” They are joyful, all the time. They are secure in their relationship with God. They get along with each other. They are completely at peace.
Look at them! They’ve been set free from addiction! Their marriages are stable. They aren’t obsessed with trying to get ahead in the workplace. They love their families!
I want some of that!
Christian, are you living the kind of life in Christ that will make someone else jealous of what you have? Are you so obviously different from everyone around you that an unbelieving world says, “Whatever they’ve got, I want it too!”
Because that’s why God grafted us into His family in the first place.
In the next part of Romans 11, Paul goes into an extended analogy of how we non-Jews have been grafted into God’s family tree. It can be hard for us to understand, because most of us aren’t farmers, and we don’t live in a part of the world with a lot of olive trees.
But in verse 17, Paul starts talking about an olive tree as the symbol of God’s family. He says,
“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.”
Romans 11:18-20 ESV
Have you ever seen an olive tree? This picture is of some of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. Some of them are over 2000 years old. Olives have always been a commercial mainstay in the Mediterranean world, it was a commercial mainstay. Even today, when you go to Israel, you’ll see olive trees in production everywhere.
Did you know that olive trees can live for hundreds of years? And though the tree, the root, can live on and on, what happens is individual branches can stop producing olives. So you know what they do when those branches stop producing? Cut them off. They lop them off. And they take branches from younger trees, off the younger trees, bore a hole in the old trunk of the old tree, and graft in a young olive branch so that the older trunks can be restored to productivity.
That’s the analogy. And it’s a plain analogy. The old productive branches, the Israelites, were broken off. That’s the blindness that happened. And then branches from a wild olive tree– that’s us, Gentiles– were grafted in. It means we get our sap, our energy, our nourishment from the covenant promises God gave to Israel.
We are tapped into the root of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the others, not as a replacement of Israel, but as a witness to Israel.
All for the purpose of wooing God’s people back to Himself, by making the Jews jealous of what we have in Christ. Listen, don’t get hung up in the word “jealous.” (your translation might read ‘envious’) The brilliant theologian John Stott put it this way:
Envy is ‘the desire to have for oneself something possessed by another’, and whether envy is good or evil depends on the nature of the something desired and on whether one has the right to its possession. If that something is in itself evil, or if it belongs to somebody else and we have no right to it, then the envy is sinful. But if the something desired is in itself good, a blessing from God, which he means all his people to enjoy, then to ‘covet’ it and to ‘envy’ those who have it is not at all unworthy. This kind of desire is right in itself, and to arouse it can be a realistic motive in ministry.
God desires for all his people to experience all His blessings. I will say it again: The very best witness we can be to an unbelieving world in general and to the Jews in particular is to be the most loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and self-controlled people in the world. That’s the fruit of the Spirit Paul describes in Galatians 5:22. And that fruit is to be so much on display in our lives that the people around us will say, “How can I get that in my life? I want that! I am jealous for that!”
And the Jews especially will say, “You get all that from our Scriptures? You experience that because you’ve put all your trust in a Jewish rabbi? Whoa. I want some of that.
And at some point in the future, God’s going to open the eyes of His people, Israel, and they will put their trust in Jesus as their Messiah.
Look how Paul describes it in verses 25-26:
25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers:[d] a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved,
God has allowed “a partial hardening” to come upon Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in.” If you are reading from the NIV, it says, “the full number of the Gentiles.” The New Living Translation says “the complete number.” What does that mean?
It means that God has a number in mind—how many non Jews are going to respond to the gospel. There is a set number—the fulness of the Gentiles.
There is going to come a time, and I believe it’s going to come soon, when the last Gentile will be saved. The last person is going to walk the aisle. The last person is going to bow their head and surrender their lives to Jesus. It might happen in Vacation Bible School. It might happen at a men’s Bible study. It might happen under a tree in Honduras or a street corner in Chennai India.
But at some point, the last Gentile will be saved. And if you’re a premillenialist, you believe that at that point, the trumpet will sound, and the rapture of the church will take place.
Others say that the church will remain on the earth, and will have an integral part to play in the salvation of the Jews. I don’t know. What I do know is that according to verse 25,
And at that point, God will lift the blindness from the Jews, and those who are alive at the time will open their hearts to the gospel, and according to verse 25, all Israel will be saved.
So let me just say to any of you non-Jewish people out there who have resisted the Gospel this long. You might be the last Gentile saved before that happens. Could be. So do us all a favor. Give your life to Christ, like, now. Let’s get this show on the road.
Because on that day, (look at the rest of verse 26)
26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Salvation will come to the Jews in the same way it came to us. The deliverer will come from Zion—that’s Jesus. He will take away their sins. They will trust in Jesus as their Savior.
Listen—this is a heavy chapter. It is hard to understand. The apostle Peter himself said, in 2 Peter 3:16 that some things in Paul’s letters are hard to understand.
But look how Paul ends this section. He ends with this beautiful doxology!
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
We don’t have to understand in order to worship. And God’s plan of salvation—for both Jews and Gentiles! Is worthy of worship.
17 This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. 18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19 Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the rural towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and as a day on which they send gifts of food to one another. Esther 9:17-20, ESV
The book of Esther ends with the establishing of the Jewish festival Purim, two days of feasting and gladness that take place on the same day Haman was originally going to carry out his genocide against the Jews.
Today in Israel, Purim is a raucous, joyous, festive bachanal, celebrated by both religious and non-religious Jews. From the outside, it looks like a combination Halloween, Carnaval, and Comic-Con, with lots of dress-up, lots of street parties, and lots and lots of alcohol.
To be honest, reading up on modern Purim celebrations and seeing the pictures left this buttoned-up, conservative Southern Baptist a little scandalized.
There are four mitzvot (commands) religious Jews are supposed to observe:
Listening to two public readings of the Book of Esther (the Megillah, in Hebrew).
Sending gift baskets of food, candy, etc. to your friends and family, called “mishloach manot” in Hebrew.
Giving to the poor.
Eating a “festive meal.”
The “festive meal” seems to be the one that gets the most attention. And believe it or not (cover your ears and clutch your pearls, my fellow Baptists), drinking is not only encouraged in Orthodox communities, drinking to excess is actually required by the Talmud. According to one article I read, getting sloshed on Purim reminds the Jews that many of the miracles of Purim occurred when wine — excessive wine — was being consumed. For what it’s worth, one could also make a case that the miraculous reversal of fortune in Esther was necessary precisely because excessive wine was being consumed.
As for the costumes and dress-up? Well, the simplest explanation is that lots of adults will look for any excuse to put on a costume. However, another article I found gave some fascinating explanations:
Since Jewish people were hiding their religion during the events of Purim and God was hiding his intentions, the Jewish people still mask their true identities in Purim; because part of Purim is handing out charity, people dress up in different clothes so that poorer people don’t feel embarrassed; or because part of the Purim story was the king dressing up Mordecai in his clothes to honor him, Jews now dress up to celebrate that.
One rabbi explained the costumes to a reporter for The Washington Post, saying, “The real lesson of Purim is that appearances are not everything and that God oftentimes operates behind the scenes and we can’t always directly perceive the intervention in our lives,”
So, for all of us goyim, what are our takeaways, both from the celebration of Purim and the biblical events? For me, it’s that once again, God shows that He is all about turning mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11) . The events of Esther were a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the year of the Lord’s favor in Isaiah 61:
61 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
(Side note: I never really caught the line in Isaiah’s prophecy about “the day of vengeance of our God” until I considered it in the light of King Ahaseurus’ decree that the Jews could use Haman’s day of genocide to defend themselves).
God is all about great reversals. Our sin for His righteousness. Our mourning for His dancing. Our ashes for His beauty. Graves into gardens. Funerals into festivals. And while I still can’t quite wrap my head around the command in the Talmud that on Purim the Jews are to drink themselves silly, it does suggest to me that our celebrations in heaven may not be quite so buttoned-up as we Baptists have always assumed. But that’s ok. Just tell us its grape juice, and we’ll be fine.
10 Esther had not made known her people or kindred, for Mordecai had commanded her not to make it known. (Esther 2:10)
There is no shortage of lessons we can draw from the book of Esther. For a book with so many feasts, it’s only fitting that Esther itself is a feast for those of us trying to learn how to thrive in a hostile culture.
What jumped out to me on this reading, though, is that assimilation into the culture didn’t shield the Jews from the threat of annihilation and genocide.
We are first introduced to Esther in Chapter 2, where we are told she is the cousin of Morecai, “the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite, who had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:5). Marinate on that for a moment: Mordecai was a fourth-generation exile. His great grandfather had been among the original exiles. So all this is taking place about a century after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and deported the Jews.
This also means that it’s been about thirty years since King Cyrus first issued the decree that the Jews could return to Jerusalem. This fact corrects the false assumption many of us have that all the Jews jumped at the chance to return to the Promised Land. But this isn’t the case. Many had apparently become quite comfortable with the culture of Babylon (and later Persia). This was Babylon’s strategy all along. Teach the exiles the language and customs of our culture. Feed them our food. And within a couple of generations, no one will be able to tell the difference (for more on this topic, see Day 256: When the World Wants to Change You).
This may have been why Mordecai initially told Esther to keep her heritage a secret. For a hundred years now, the Jews had learned to go along to get along. Keep your head down and you reduce the risk of it getting cut off.
But if the book of Esther teaches us anything, it’s that blending in is not supposed to be a strategy for God’s people. From the outset, God had intended for His people to be set apart and different. God chose the Jews to be “a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth (Dt. 7:6). And for that reason, Satan has had it out for the Jews ever since. The order for extermination Haman issues in Esther 3 is just one of dozens examples throughout history of Satan’s attempts to annihilate God’s people.
I love how the King James Version translates 1 Peter 2:9:
9 But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;
God’s people are supposed to be peculiar. Distinct. Different. We aren’t intended to fit in. And it wasn’t until Esther made her heritage known that her people were saved from extermination. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll circle back to that in tomorrow’s reading.
Beloved, you were set apart to stand out. Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount to let our light shine before men so that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in Heaven (Matthew 5:14-16). So let’s stop working so hard to convince the rest of the world that we are just like they are.
In her book Searching For Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans had this to say about the “weirdness of Christianity.” Rachel grew up in a traditional, conservative church, became disillusioned with religion for a number of years, and then came back to faith as a young adult. And while I don’t agree with everything Rachel thought or wrote about, this spoke to my soul:
What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.
10 “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. Zechariah 12:10
Through the Bible: Zechariah 10-14
A couple of days ago I talked about how there’s only a few verses in the Old Testament (6 if you use the ESV) where the word “grace” is used, and that two out of six are in Zechariah. So here is the second one.
In 12:10, grace is given from God the Son to the very people who pierced Him. Grace is given in order that they might repent and turn to Him.
There is a concept in theology called “prevenient grace.” It’s super confusing, and is the source for a lot of arguments between reformed Christians and Arminian Christians. You can read a concise description of the argument here: What is Prevenient Grace?
Basically, the word “prevenient” describes something that comes before something else—an act that precedes another act. So “prevenient grace” is grace given by God that precedes saving grace. And that’s what I see in 12:10.
Before we can repent of our sin, God has to give us a measure of grace to even be aware of out need to repent in the first place. Ephesians 2:1 says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. A dead person can’t respond to anything, so how can they come to the point of salvation? The answer is Zechariah 12:10: It is God who pours out His spirit of grace, so that I can look on the One I have pierced, and mourn.
This wrecks me. I pierced my Lord because of my sin and my rebellion. I am the reason He died on the cross. I am the reason the crown was placed on his head. I am the reason nails were driven through His hands and feet.
And without God pouring out on me a spirit of grace and mercy, I would not even be able to feel sorrow and shame for it. Without God’s kindness leading me to repentance (Romans 2:4), the crucifixion of Jesus wouldn’t even be a footnote in a history book. Jesus would be just one of hundreds of Jews executed by the Romans.
The grace to take responsibility for the death of Jesus is given by God.
The grace to believe in something as wondrous and unbelievable as the resurrection of Jesus is also given by God.
I contribute nothing! It is all grace, and only grace, that brings me to Jesus.
“Take from them silver and gold, and make a crown, and set it on the head of Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. And say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”’” (Zechariah 6:11-13, ESV)
In today’s TBR, Tara-Leigh talks about all the blending of priestly and kingly symbols in Zechariah 6: the crown on the priest, the priest on a throne, the throne in the temple. She points out the name of the priest— Joshua, and how in Hebrew Joshua and Yeshua (Jesus) are the same name, and that they mean “Yahweh saves.”
So of course all this imagery foreshadows Jesus, who alone fulfills the role of messianic king and great high priest.
But there’s something else going on here, I think. In yesterday‘s reading (Zechariah 3) we saw Joshua the high priest wearing robes covered in filth (the Hebrew word is the one used for “excrement.” I know. Ewww.).
In his book King’s Cross, (which has been re-titled Jesus the King), Timothy Keller reflects on the preparation the high priest went through for the one day a year he stood before God in the Holy of Holies. He writes:
“A week beforehand, the high priest was put into seclusion – taken away from his home and into a place where he was completely alone. Why? So he wouldn’t accidentally touch or eat anything unclean. Clean food was brought to him, and he’d wash his body and prepare his heart. The night before the Day of Atonement he didn’t go to bed; he stayed up all night praying and reading God’s Word to purify his soul.
Then on Yom Kippur he bathed head to toe and dressed in pure, unstained white linen. Then he went into the holy of Holies and offered an animal sacrifice to God to atone, or pay the penalty for, his own sins. After that he came out and bathed completely again, and new white linen was put on him, and he went in again, this time sacrificing for the sins of the priests. But that’s not all. He would come out a third time, and he bathed again from head to toe and they dressed him in brand new pure linen, and he went into the holy of holies and atoned for the sins of all the people.
… When the high priest went before God there wasn’t a speck on him; he was as pure as pure can be.
Only if you understand that do you realize why the next lines of the prophecy in Zechariah 3 were so shocking: Zechariah saw Joshua the high priest standing before the presence of God in the holy of holies – but Joshua’s garments were covered in excrement. He was absolutely defiled. Zechariah couldn’t believe his eyes.
And so, while Joshua in Chapter 6 represents Jesus, I think Joshua in chapter 3 represents us, and how God sees us. No amount of ritual bathing or purification rites that Joshua did on his own would make him clean enough to stand before God. Isaiah 64:6 says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags. But just as God Himself clothed Joshua in pure vestments and took away his iniquity (3:4); He does the same with us. As Psalm 51 says, when God washes away our iniquity and cleanses us from sin, we are washed whiter than snow.
And here’s what is truly amazing: because Joshua represents us in Zechariah 3, there’s a level on which he also represents us in Zechariah 6. We are a kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9). We are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). We are ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21).
Beloved, we are representatives of Jesus to a lost world because Christ has already represented us to the Father!
7 Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain. And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” Zechariah 4:7
Through the Bible: Zechariah 1-4
I am always interested in how and why translation teams for various English translations choose to translate certain words the way they do. The word “grace” for example, shows up only six times in the ESV Old Testament, compared to 37 times in the KJV, 18 in the NKJV, 7 times each in the NIV and CSB, and 9 times in the NASB. Two of them are in Zechariah.
The word is the Hebrew word chane (rhymes with “chain,” only pronounce the ch like you would the ch in Bach). It’s not that rare a word in the Old Testament, 69 times in all. Usually, it is translated “favor” or “acceptance,” as in “if I have found favor (chane) in your eyes.”
Its usage is split fairly evenly between describing someone finding favor in another human being’s eyes, such as Jacob finding favor in Esau’s sight, and Joseph finding favor in Pharaoh’s sight; and a human being finding favor in the Lord’s sight, such as Noah, Moses (especially) and, in the Psalms and Proverbs, anyone who walks uprightly.
So, I don’t know why the ESV translates it “grace” in Zechariah 4:7 and 12:10. But these two occasions jump out to me because you just don’t see it that often.
In 4:7, in the vision God gave to Zechariah, “Grace, grace to it!” is what the people are shouting when Zerubbabel places the finishing stone on the Temple. This is how nearly all the English translations render it. Only the NIV and NLT differ. They go with “God bless it, God bless it,” which actually feels a little closer to the idea of “Let the favor of the Lord test up of this work.”
Notice what they don’t say. The people didn’t shout, “Whooo-wee! Git ‘r done, Zerubbabel!” (the way I might expect them to where I live in Alabama). They didn’t pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for all their hard work. Why not? Because God has already said to them that this temple will be built “Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit” (v. 6).
Grace was what moved Cyrus, king of Persia, to send Zerubbabel and his builders back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Grace was what enabled them to persist in the work, even when some of those who had seen the first temple wept over the second one. So when the Temple was complete, and Zerubbabel laid the top stone, “Grace! Grace!” was the only appropriate response.
Zechariah is a grace-filled Old Testament book. When we get to Day 265, we’ll talk about the other use of the word “grace” in Zechariah. It is truly—wait for it—amazing.
““Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord.” Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” Haggai 1:2-4 ESV
Through the Bible: Haggai 1-2
The message of Haggai to the returning exiles seems pretty straightforward: God’s house is in shambles, while you’re picking out shiplap (thanks for the chuckle, Tara-Leigh!). Get your priorities straight.
But before we draw universal conclusions, and say that this is going to be true for all people, for all time, in every situation, let’s flash back to what happened when King David compared his living quarters to God’s way back in 2 Samuel:
“Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’” 2 Samuel 7:1-7 ESV
So, when David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, the Lord said, “I’ve been cool with a tent for about five hundred years now. I don’t need a house.”
A generation later, Solomon, David’s son, does indeed build God a house. It took him seven years to do it, although, don’t miss the fact that Solomon spent thirteen years—nearly twice as long—on his own house (see 1 Kings 7:1).
And yet, throughout Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon repeatedly emphasizes that this is a temple for the name of the Lord, and not for the Lord. Himself.
““But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.” 1 Kings 8:27-30 ESV
Verse 30 is the first of six times Solomon will remind the people that heaven, not the temple, is God’s dwelling place.
So why is God so concerned with the temple being built after the exile? Why does he use Haggai (and Zechariah, which we will see tomorrow) to call out the returning exiles for their misplaced priorities? Did he change His mind in the five hundred years between Solomon and the return from Babylon?
God didn’t change His mind. It was always about the heart and not the house. David’s heart was right toward God, and so for God, the house didn’t matter. In fact, God used this opportunity to establish His covenant with David, essentially saying, “You want to build me a house? Instead, let ME build YOU a house!”
It was about the heart for Solomon as well. Solomon knew that once there was a visible temple, the people would tend to take God’s presence for granted. So he constantly reminded the people that the purpose of the temple was to worship God, not contain Him.
Finally, for the returning exiles, it was still about the heart. Only now, it wasn’t that the people needed to be reminded that God didn’t actually reside in the temple. It was that they needed to be reminded that God had not left them. Look closely at His message to them in Haggai 2:
“Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not.” Haggai 2:4-5 ESV
For the exiles, the temple would be the visible symbol that God was with them, that His Spirit remained in their midst. God didn’t get left behind when they were deported to Babylon, nor did He stay in Babylon when they returned to Jerusalem.
What was true for David was true for the returning exiles. God wanted their hearts, not a house. The difference for the exiles is that God would encourage their hearts because they were building the house.
God is still interested in our hearts today. If we’ve been forsaking the fellowship of our local church, He’s going to prod us to get off the couch on Sunday morning and get back in church. On the other hand, if we’ve gotten so consumed with being at church every time the doors are open, He is going to remind us of the needs in our community, and that it may be necessary to skip Bible study if it means helping your neighbor one day. Consistently, from David to Solomon to Haggai to Zechariah to you and me, it is always about the heart, not the house.
4 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” (Ezra 4:1-2, ESV)
Read Through the Bible: Ezra 4-6, Psalm 137
When you compare The Bible Project’s walkthrough of Ezra to Tara-Leigh Cobble’s Day 261 Bible Recap, you get two very different interpretations of the adversaries of Ezra 4.
Tim Mackie and the Bible Project guys believe they are Israelites who remained in the land after Assyria overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel in 722BC. They don’t assume any ulterior motives to their offer to help rebuild the Temple, and it wasn’t until after they were spurned by Zerubbabel that they became adversarial.
In Tara-Leigh’s podcast, however, she sees them as offering to help under false pretenses. Unlike Tim Mackie, she doesn’t consider the possibility that they are actual Israelites and that their offer to help can be taken at face value.
So who’s right?
There is scholarly support for the idea that the people who had been living in the land were at least half Jewish. Many scholars believe these were the descendants of Jews who were resettled in Israel after the Assyrian invasion. While Babylon’s strategy was to assimilate conquered people, Assyria scattered them. They would force them to intermarry with other peoples it conquered, and then drop them throughout the Assyrian empire. The result was a group of half breed Jews that still worshiped Yahweh, but were despised by the “pure” Jews that returned from Babylon. If you’ve ever wondered the source of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans that you see in Jesus’ day, it’s right here in Ezra 4.
On the other hand, Ezra 4:1 calls them “adversaries” right out of the gate. But notice, they are described as “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin.” That doesn’t preclude them from being Israelites. Remember that after the death of Solomon in 931 BC, Israel split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (see 2 Chron. 11:1-12).
So if they were Israelites, was Zerubbabel right to send them away? Tara-Leigh says that Zerubbabel’s argument was that Cyrus had specified only the exiles were to rebuild the temple, but I can’t find that in the text. In fact, I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where God prohibited Zerubbabel from accepting their help. Clearly they became enemies when the exiles snubbed their offer, but what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if they were sincere when they came to Zerubbabel and said, “We worship Yahweh too”? We don’t know because the text doesn’t make that explicit.
It’s always risky to try to apply your presuppositions to scripture. That’s called eisegesis— reading meaning into a text, as opposed to exegesis— getting the meaning out of a text, and it’s generally not a good approach to Bible study. To some extent, I think both The Bible Project and The Bible Recap do that with this text. And whether the inhabitants of the land were sincere or not is really beside the point. Ezra is about how to respond to opposition, not about how to discern the motives of people who offer to help.
But if I had to choose one theory over the other, I would probably side with The Bible Project on this one (sorry, Tara-Leigh!). Two reasons:
It helps explain the enmity between Jews and Samaritans that existed in first century Palestine. Jesus constantly encountered this in His ministry (see John 4)
It seems to reflect God’s heart to bring Israel and Judah together. Remember Ezekiel’s performance art with the stick? In Ezekiel 37, God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks. He is to write “Israel” on one and “Judah” on the other. Then, he is to bind them together. The point is to show God’s plan for the two kingdoms:
19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah,[e] and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. 20 When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, 21 then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. 22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.
So, holding this with an open hand and being careful not to declare definitively when Scripture itself doesn’t, It seems to me that Ezra 4 is one of those descriptive-not-prescriptive passages.
I wonder how the rest of biblical history would have played out if Zerubbabel had not been on such a high horse. What would Jesus’ ministry look like if the Samaritans weren’t so despised by the Jews? Indeed, what would history itself look like if the Romans had found a unified people instead of a divided people? Could they have conquered so easily? Would they have destroyed Jerusalem in the first place? We will never know.
Ultimately, however, we know that God will unite the nation of Israel. His purposes will not be thwarted.