Day 269: Dirty Jobs (Nehemiah 3:14)

The Dung Gate in Jerusalem, on the southern side of the Old City

 

“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.”

Day 268: Did God Command Divorce in Ezra? (Ezra 7-10)

Ezra Reading the Law of Moses
...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.”
Ezra 9:6-15

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.

For further reading, check out this blog post from Ligonier Ministries: Putting Away the Foreign Wives

Day 267: A Day of Feasting and Gladness (Esther 6-10)

Esther Denouncing Haman, by Ernest Normand (1857–1923)
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.

Israelis enjoy a purim parade, the largest in the country, in the city of Holon, during the Jewish holiday of Purim. March 21, 2019. Photo by Flash90

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:

  1. Listening to two public readings of the Book of Esther (the Megillah, in Hebrew).
  2. Sending gift baskets of food, candy, etc. to your friends and family, called “mishloach manot” in Hebrew.
  3. Giving to the poor.
  4. 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.

“What is Purim and How to Celebrate It” from Jewishinsider.com

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.

Day 266: The Futility of Trying to Fit In (Esther 1-5)

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.

Rachel Held Evans, Searching For Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

Blending in won’t shield us from the Enemy’s attacks. But being distinct just might be what preserves the church for future generations.

Day 265: Grace that Draws Us Near (Zechariah 12:10)

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.

And that is amazing.

Day 264: Two Joshuas (Zechariah 5-9)

“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!

Day 263: Grace, Grace (Zechariah 4:7)

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.

Day 262: It’s About the Heart, Not the House (Haggai 1:2-4)

““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.

Day 259: Love, Understanding, Strength (Daniel 10-12)

23 At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision. (Daniel 9:23)

10 And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. 11 And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. (Daniel 10:10)

18 Again one having the appearance of a man touched me and strengthened me. 19 And he said, “O man greatly loved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And as he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.”  (Daniel 10:18-19)

Three times in two chapters, Daniel is described as a man “greatly loved.”

Notice when he gets the word. All three times, it is when he is overwhelmed by the visions he is seeing. In chapter 9, the visions have driven him to an extended period of mourning, fasting, and repentance. This period lasted three weeks (see 10:2-3).

In all three cases, three things are emphasized:

When I was in high school, I was involved in drama, chorus, and theatre. It was always interesting to contrast what was going on behind the curtain with what was happening on stage. Backstage is often a frenzy of controlled chaos. Actors are changing costumes. Stagehands are moving sets into place. Prop masters are getting props where they need to be. All the while the tech director, lighting designer, prompters, musicians, sound engineers, and a host of others are in communication with the director, all working to make sure the vision of the creator is realized onstage.

The book of Daniel is like that. We don’t always (if ever) get a peek behind the curtain the way Daniel did. But we can be certain that God hears our prayers from the moment we begin praying, and that there is an entire backstage crew that is at work, bringing the production to life according to the vision of our Creator.

And know this, beloved: When you are at your weakest and most confused, God reminds you that you are greatly loved. Be strengthened.

Day 258: Get on With The King’s Business (Daniel 7-9)

“And I, Daniel, was overcome and lay sick for some days. Then I rose and went about the king’s business, but I was appalled by the vision and did not understand it.”
‭‭Daniel‬ ‭8:27‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Even though Daniel was overcome and sick and appalled by the visions he had seen, he still “rose and went about the king’s business.”

This is a great lesson for those of us who get obsessed with end times prophecy.

When we see the world as it is, spinning out of control as it seems to be, with a sigh we say, “Come, Lord Jesus! Let it be today!” And we come to Daniel 7-12, with its beasts and horns and kings of the south and the north, and its seventy weeks and its times, times, and half a time; and, like Daniel, we can be overwhelmed.

But Daniel had a job to do. He was one of the three high officials under King Darius (see Daniel 6:2). So no matter how mysterious and fascinating these visions were, he still had the king’s business to attend to.

It made me think of a similar scene from the New Testament. We read in Acts 1 that after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus spent the next forty days with His disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. It must have been pretty heady stuff, full of signs and proofs and portents (see Acts 1:3). At one point, they got so excited about all of it that they blurted out, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Look at Jesus’ response:

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.””
‭‭Acts‬ ‭1:6-8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Then, Jesus ascends to heaven, and the disciples are left on the hillside, staring, slackjawed, at the sky. I think maybe they would have stayed there staring until they went blind; because it took two angels appearing and saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” before they snapped out of it and returned to Jerusalem (see Acts 1:11).

End times prophecy can be endlessly fascinating. But there is still the King’s business to attend to. All of our charts and interpretive graphs and Left Behind books and studies on the four blood moons may be the equivalent of staring at the sky and waiting for Jesus to return. And perhaps we need to be reminded that, like the disciples, it is not for us to know the times and the seasons.

Because at the bottom of the hill lies Jerusalem. And beyond its borders are Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. We’ve been given a commission to be His witnesses. And we have the Holy Spirit’s power to accomplish the Heavenly father’s purpose, all the while assured of the risen Son’s presence.

Don’t stand staring at the sky. Go about the King’s business.

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