Day 150: Job 27-30; Job's Defense

Job has clearly endured a great deal of pain and trauma in his life.  The loss of all his monetary wealth is one thing and the loss of his family and loved ones is completely another thing.  Yet Job has lost most than this, a loss that we have experiences over the past couple of days.  Job has lost the support of his friends and his wife which is pretty much all that he has left on this earth.  You know the saying “when it rains, it pours?”  For Job it would be more along the lines of “when it rains, it hurricanes.”  One could say that no matter what bad day anyone has ever had, Job definitely had it worse.

But even saying that is a way of taking sides with Job’s friends.  They have answered Job in ways that have sought to minimize his pain so that they don’t feel as uncomfortable.  This may or may not be the reason for their answers and accusations of Job, we’ll never truly know, but I think that this does strike a chord with our own hearts and feelings when we encounter those that are struggling.  Telling someone else that they should “buck up” because there are those that have it worse is a way of doing this.  Sadly, we even do this to ourselves, minimizing our own feelings of hurt or sadness because we don’t want to deal with them.  I understand… I’ve been there… its difficult to feel alone and abandoned, defeated and disdained.  No one craves that as an existential reality, but we have all been there and it is a place that we don’t want to return.  So when those feelings begin to seep back into our lives, it rapidly becomes a flood of memories and hurt that we cannot hope to handle.  Clearly, this is not the way that we are supposed to be struggling through our trials and hurts… but how then?

Job shows us the way.  He sets the example for us.

When it seems like all is lost…
When it seems like it couldn’t possibly get worse…
When it seems like there is nothing else to lose…
When it seems like all have turned away…
When it seems like even God has turned His back…
Job still maintains his faith in God almighty.

We see this laid out clearly for us in today’s reading.  Job knows that he has not done anything to deserve this and he even recognizes that God has allowed these things to happen to him.  It seems as though Job understands well that nothing happens outside the will of God as expressed in His ongoing sustaining of the universe.  He isn’t necessarily happy about it, and rightfully so.  As we’ll see in the Psalms in the coming weeks, there are many people who cry out to God in their distress, and that is ok!  We are allowed to lament; God welcomes our cries… He is the ultimate comforter.

Job doesn’t seek an explanation for all that is going on here.  He understands that the wisdom of God is far beyond his comprehension and believes that there is some greater purpose at work here.  He doesn’t listen to his friends’ (Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar) explanations either, trying to minimize pain or explain away the actions of God on a whim.  Job stands up in his pain and in his sorrow and say that He will trust the Lord.  It isn’t the easiest decision.  It doesn’t make everything instantly all better.  It won’t even always bring the explanations we are looking for.  But it is the Best decision we can make when we are in pain because it binds us to the One who is in charge of it all (from the stars to the hairs on your head), the One through whom all wisdom flows, and the One who has promised to be with us and never let our foot slip.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!

O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

The Cross in the wreckage of the World Trade Center on 9/11 became a symbol for faith, comfort, and hope amid the tragedy. Photo Credit:

The Cross in the wreckage of the World Trade Center on 9/11 became a symbol for faith, comfort, and hope amid the tragedy.
Photo Credit:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Day 149: Job 22-26; Final Accusations

As we have discussed over the past couple of days, when people encounter others that are dealing with pain and struggles in their life, it can become very uncomfortable for those who mean well trying to be supportive.  Like Job’s friends, we are more than willing to sit and be silent with our friends who are suffering.  We gladly share in their grief offering compassion and love in as many ways as we can.  We can subscribe to the idea of being slow to speak and quick to listen, willingly offering our shoulders for others to cry on.  We even bring meals to our friends who are traveling through the dark valleys of life.  These are all good things, and easy things for us to do.  They show that we care, communicate our good will and intentions, and provide support for those dealing with pain.

Yet what happens when our friends start asking questions about the struggles that they are going through?  Maybe the first two are not so bad.  They might ask “why me?” or say “I wish so-and-so was still with us.”  We can nod or shrug, silently still giving support without engaging the questions that we have no answers to.  These questions are normal for people to ask.  We don’t really think that they are looking for answers, but rather just traveling down the road of grief and trying to make sense of the situation.  But when the questions keep coming, just like most people, we start to get uncomfortable.

People like to have answers, order, and processes.  We are naturally curious about how things work and why they work the way that they do.  Humanity strives for knowledge, and especially in the last 150 years or so, work hard to discover and learn about the world and how it functions.  But these difficult things, they don’t have simple little explanations or solutions; they don’t often fit into our categories or life processes.  There really are no good answers for why someone very close to you died at a young age, or why your family member got cancer, or why that young girl got hit by a train.  No explanations or logic can really figure that out.  And this makes us uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the questions don’t always stop when we start feeling uncomfortable.  A grieving mother doesn’t look up from  her painfully blank staring to say, “Oh I can see that my grief and questions are making you uncomfortable, I’ll stop.”  No, instead she just continues to ask questions of both men and God.  This is the point at which we feel uncomfortable.  It is here that we tend to shut down, disengage, ignore, or even become angry.  We often end up here, and today we see that clearly Job’s friends are at this same place anymore.

Here we pick up the final accusations of Job’s friends Elephaz and Bildad.  They have gone through a great deal of discourse, talking back and forth, listening to Job’s pleas and questions before God almighty.  They are ok to sit with him, but when the rubber meets the road, they are just as ignorant to the true purposes of God as everyone else in the world.  But rather than returning to a point in which they can be supportive and uplifting, they choose to take out the anger and struggle on Job.  We have read their accusations against Job, they are bitter and unhelpful to this suffering man.

Perhaps it was something in their past that has been brought up while Job sufferings and struggles even for breath after all the calamity that has fallen on him.  Perhaps it is their unfulfilled need to be able to explain the world and put logic to words in these crazy times.  In any case, Job’s friends have listened and been somewhat supportive, but clearly now they have had enough. Rather than saying that they didn’t truly know why all this was happening to Job they have chosen the past of anger and even accusation.  Job doesn’t need someone who questions their every saying, he needs someone who is willing to listen and dwell with him in the dark valley of the shadow of death.  Job needs someone with open ears, not an open mouth.

Today we read the last accusations of Job’s three friends.  As you do, ask yourself which character you can relate with.  Maybe you find death or struggles uncomfortable.  Perhaps you are scared of the questions that might be raised?  Are you quick to cast blame so that you don’t have to process of the emotions or answer the questions that people ask.  As you evaluate yourself, ask yourself… who am I in this story?  Is that who I truly want to be?

Day 148: Job 18-21; The Accusations Continue

If direct accusations aren’t enough in this situation, Job also has to endure the veiled accusations of Bildad and Zophar.  When these two men speak once again, they do not take as direct approach as Eliphaz did, but they do make their voices and their thoughts heard in the face of Job’s despair.  This is where Job’s friends start to get me worked up inside.  Not that I haven’t been feeling for Job all this time, but I think as I read these friends beat around the bush calling Job wicked and evil without actually calling him those things, I end up getting really frustrated with them.  There is nothing I hate worse really than people beating around the bush rather than telling me what they actually want to tell me.  Even if it is bad, I’d rather hear what is on their minds rather than playing all sorts of verbal niceties.

We could go on and continue talked about the differences between Bildad and Zophar in their accusations of Job, attacking his character with their attempted explanations of the situation as we have been, but I think today that I am feeling led to talk more about Job’s reaction in all of this rather than the friends that we have looked at in recent days.  From the very beginning, Job has maintained his integrity.  Through all the trials and struggles of life, He still does not cave to the pressure of His friends, nor does he doubt God’s good will for His life.  Today, in the face of Bildad’s accusation, Job’s reaction is the sound faith that “His Redeemer Lives.”  No matter what Job goes through, that knowledge and belief continues to carry him.  I think that Job sees the truth of the deeper side of the situation, that God has sustained him through this trial and that, even in the suffering, God’s faithfulness continues.  It seems like little consolation for all that Job has been through, but the fact still remains, that God’s providence is still at work in this situation, even if Job doesn’t understand it all.

Sometimes I think that we think that it is a cop out to say that we have hope in God and that should trump all pain and suffering.  In someways, perhaps it is… and in some ways I would completely disagree with this method of trying to comfort someone.  While that statement is entirely true, our hope in God, the faith that we have in Jesus Christ is certainly something that we should hold on to in times of pain and suffering.  God is indeed almighty and loving and we know that He is working for our good, even if we cannot feel it right now.  This is all very true.  I think, however, that we tend to use these truths in the ways that are not meant just for the comfort of others but rather, as we have talked about in these last few days, to quell the discomfort in our own minds.  When we use truth to minimize other people’s pain because we don’t want to deal with it, it doesn’t make it any less true, but it does make the use of it wrong.  God’s Word and the hope that it offers was never meant to be used for selfish purposes.  We want to be able to comfort people in times of trouble, to walk with them through the dark valleys.  We do this because we, like Job, are confident in the hope that we have in Christ.  We know that no power on earth can take us away from that hope, and that it is pervasive in our lives.  We do not use this hope to minimize other people’s pain, but instead to walk with them through the darkness guiding them towards the healing light that is in Christ.

Day 147: Job 13-17; The Accusation of Eliphaz

Job’s faith in all of this is incredibly telling.  I often think to myself when I’m reading through Job that I would never be able to withstand this amount of suffering.  I can’t imagine all of my family being taken from me, everything that I own, and even my health.  I can’t even begin to fathom the pain of dealing with all this and then facing friends that care more about their own personal comfort than that of myself in dealing with all of this suffering.  Yet in the midst of this, Job says very clearly that he will continue to trust in God no matter what happens and what comes from the mouths of his friends.  What an amazing faith in the face of suffering and pain.  Job doesn’t have the answers, he probably doesn’t know all of the right questions, but He knows where is source and his strength comes from.  Job trusts in the almighty and understands, if even a little, that in this time, he NEEDS to hold on to God through faith.  Job knows that he is no different than any other man, that his life is not any better.  He also seems to know that God is good and that there is a purpose, no matter what it is.  He will trust in the Lord because the Lord is God.

It is into this then that Job’s friends begin to speak again.  They follow, in many ways, the course that we normally follow as well.  We first start by trying to offer veiled explanations of things that we don’t understand.  Our hope, as it was likely the hope of Job’s friends, is that will quiet Job’s questions, ones that we really don’t have the answers to, so that we will no longer feel this discomfort.  What comes next then, is not actually helpful for Job, but is meant to again calm the minds and fears of the friends not the one who is suffering.  Job has refused to be quiet in the face of his friends and the suffering that he is going to, so they have chosen to step up their comments as well.

I think that we often struggle to deal with or interact with people that are actively questioning God.  No matter what people are going through, the explanation that God is in control seems so often to be the end of the discussion.  We have been told that we are creations and God is the creator.  Even Job said that in a way that the beginning of this book.  Yet that is not entirely true.  As we will see in the coming Psalms, the Bible is filled with people that cry out to God, bringing their problems and troubles before Him and even questioning why it is that they are going through what they are.  We have lost a bit of this in the Christian faith.  We don’t want to be with people in their problems because we don’t have an answer because, quite possibly, there is no good answer this side of eternity.  Instead we accuse, explain, and speak without knowledge or wisdom, all in the name of God.  The Spirit is described as a counselor and a comforter.  Jesus came not to judge the downtrodden but to help them.  In His name, comfort and hope are offered, not judgment and accusation.

It is ok to ask questions to God, to bring our laments before Him.  God is not afraid of our troubles, He is bigger than our doubts.  While there may be few answers that we find here on earth, we know that our heavenly Father sits enthroned in heaven and that He indeed has a plan for us.  Nothing takes place without the will of the Father.  This can be a comfort to those who are hurting, but it can also lead to a lot of questions, and that it ok.  We don’t need to have all the answers… our place is to be a comfort in time of need, and to point to our hope in the Lord at all times and in all places.

Day 146: Job 9-12; Bildad and Zophar

Today we continue with our exploration of Job’s friends.  Yesterday we saw of two usual reactions that take place when bad things happen to seemingly good people.  We see how people are so quick to offer explanations, thoughts, and opinions about what is going on and why.  We are focusing on these folks instead of Job because of their reactions and how they often reflect what our reactions are.  Job’s reactions in this, his questioning and pleading with God… these are natural emotions and issues to work through.  Anyone that has dealt with pain and/or suffering on a level such as this knows that the questions that Job raises are natural.  The book of Job is a book of contrasts, showing the natural reactions, which God welcomes and is not at all afraid of against the human reactions to discomfort that are both wrong and completely unhelpful.

Flooded I-10/I-610 interchange and surrounding...

Flooded I-10/I-610 interchange and surrounding area of northwest New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We pick up the story of Job where we left off yesterday, with the respond of Job’s friend Bildad.  Unfortunately, this response is not anything better than that of Eliphaz, whom we spoke of yesterday.  Remember that Eliphaz chose to suggest that Job had done something wrong.  He does so in a non-accusatory tone, suggesting that it is the innocent that prosper, not the wicked.  Eliphaz suggests that Job should seek God and find out what he did wrong, though not directly.  We do this sometimes too don’t we?  Make veiled suggestions without actually accusing someone of something?  It makes us feel like we can explain away the situation, which makes us feel much better.

English: Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas

English: Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the speeches of the friends continue, we encounter Bildad who, like Eliphaz, suggests that there is clearly something that Job has done wrong and he needs to repent.  This is a bit more direct than Eliphaz, but still completely misses the point.  Bildad says that God wouldn’t do such things to someone who was righteous, therefore Job must have done something wrong.  This sounds like a familiar cadence does it not?  When the planes struck the towers on 9/11 certain religious people claimed that this was God punishing them and us for our sins.  The same was true when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; judgement from God on the sins of that place.  What about the people from Westboro Baptist?  They claim that the deaths of soldiers in the military are the result of God’s judgment on America over the issue of homosexuality.  What a comfort it must be to explain away the pain and sadness, the suffering of people that are no worse than their accusers.

Next we encounter Zophar, whose response to Job’s pain takes a different but still familiar route.  Someone in pain expresses some of the difficulty that they are going through and the response of this friend is “it could be worse.”  Zophar appeals to the truth of the human condition of sin, knowing that there is obviously something that Job did wrong at some point in time.  While this is true of us all and we have indeed sinned, there is no comfort found in suggesting that the darkness could always be a bit darker.  No one find comfort in knowing that their pain is not as bad as it could be, but it sure calms the nerves and the discomfort of those who are attempting to be a support.

Again, both of these responses are veiled and empty.  Rather than being sympathetic to plight of Job in this time of trial and pain, these ‘friends’ of Job offer explanations that are unhelpful of a situation that they cannot explain.  While their responses speak of God and God’s actions as if they understand, the fact is that we don’t understand why there is evil and pain in the world.  We live in a broken world and, though we lived as redeemed people and have seen the beginning of the restoration that has begun in God’s actions and been advanced in the reconciliation brought through Jesus Christ, we also know that we are not there yet.  We live in the reality of the resurrection, the reality that there will be no more pain or death or suffering, yet we also understand that it has not yet been completely realized.  God is at work, this is incredibly true and we see it in the grand scheme of things, even if it is not so evident in the moment, but the world is still broken.  Sometimes we need to just sit in that brokenness, be uncomfortable in the pain, and dwell in the dark places with our loved ones as they journey through times of pain and suffering with them rather than minimize their suffering to quell our discomfort.

Day 145: Job 5-8; Job's Wife and Eliphaz

Yesterday we read the intro to Job.  A man that had everything, who was rich beyond richest of the day, lost all but his life in what seemed like an instant.  What is interesting to me though is Job’s reaction, something that we’ll continue to see throughout this whole book.  Job tears his clothes and begins to mourn, but Scripture also says that Job worships God in that time as well.  While I wouldn’t want to belittle anyone’s suffering or pain, I wonder how many of us would turn to God in “worship” when something bad in our lives happens.  I think that part of this is the idea of a funeral worship service in that we remember the life of the person and thank God for the days they were with us.  This is an important part of mourning, in that we remember that it is ultimately God who has given to us the people in our lives and it is He who sustains us.  Job’s words remind me of a wonderful and popular song by Tree63, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job Mocked by his Wife

Job Mocked by his Wife (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After these events happen and Job has even lost his health his wife enters into the scene and give Job her counsel: “curse God and die.”  While I don’t believe this is meant to be a knock on wives, I do think it is indicative of our first tendency when we face trials and evil like this.  We don’t understand why this is happening and the first voice that shows up is one that screams in our minds about fairness and the apparent contradiction that is placed before us.  “How can a loving God allow these things to happen?  He must not be real or He must hate me.”  It is, sadly, our first instinct… to run.  No one likes to be hurt.  Certainly no one likes to suffer.  But the fact of the matter is that sin, evil, and brokenness are a reality in the world.  Job’s response to his wife is very telling of the conviction of his faith in God: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”  I imagine this was not an easy thing for him to say… and it certainly isn’t for us either… but there is truth in his words; a very hard truth.

Иов на гноище. Job. 1547-51. Роспись ю-в. стоп...

Иов на гноище. Job. 1547-51. Роспись ю-в. стопа Благовещенского собора Кремля (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enter Job’s friends.  For the rest of today and tomorrow we will explore Job’s friends and their responses to Job’s plight.  Initially it seems as though they take the right approach.  They show up and sit with him for SEVEN days without saying a thing!  Wow… 7 days.  Have you ever gone to someone in pain and just sat with them?  Have you ever needed someone to just come and sit with you?  It can be uncomfortable… the silence can be unnerving even… but in this initial reaction, I think Job’s friends get it right.  However, for them and often for us, when Job starts asking questions and despairing out loud, the discomfort takes over and the desire to settle ourselves takes over.  This is what happens with Job’s friends.

Eliphaz listens to Job’s cry, his questioning of the situation, and even his wish that he had never been born, and then he speaks up with words of counsel for Job.  His first response in the ESV Bible is titled “the Innocent Prosper.”  The whole premise for his speech to Job it to point Job away from his “deceit” and towards whatever sin he has done that has brought upon him this punishment.  He works, in many ways, from the idea of a black and while God who only lets good things happen to the good people and bad things happen to the bad people.  Therefore, from the perspective of Eliphaz, Job must have done something wrong.

Sound like a familiar thought?  I know I tend to jump to those thoughts and sometimes even suggestions when it comes to uncomfortable topics like suffering and pain.  Its really easy to explain it away isn’t it?  But I wonder if we (or if Eliphaz) was saying these things for Job’s sake… or for his own?  See, the first thing that we tend to do when we get into an uncomfortable situation is to distance ourselves somehow.  Eliphaz seems to want to answer all of Job’s questions, to explain away his predicament so that the discomfort will go away.  Perhaps you are familiar with this discomfort?  I know that I am quick to answer and slow to listen when it comes to times like this.  But I wonder, if there are times when we need to just be uncomfortable with our friends… if there are times when just sitting in silence, wiping the tears away, and even just listening to the despairing talk of a loved one is all that is necessary.  Perhaps maybe the best answer, is not the one that tries to explain all of the problems away… but is simply a listening ear and a hug?

Day 144: Job 1-4; Intro to Job

After almost 150 days, 144 by my count, we are are stepping into a new genre of Biblical literature.  Since we began our journey through the Bible, we have been reading the books of the law and the books of history.  These books have been composed of primarily narratives that are descriptive of Israel’s history and the stories that connect the Israelites to their ancestors and therefore to God.  Also contained in these books is truth about the nature of God as is observed in His interactions with His people.  God’s interactions, or revelation of Himself, reveals a much deeper reality that exists, the reality of a created order which God has creates and which He sustains day after day, throughout all of time.

The book of Job is the first of the five books classified as “Wisdom Literature.”  These books take us away from the narratives and instead directs our attention towards following God with our whole lives.  Job, a book famous for addressing the problem of evil in the world, is possibly the only exception in this wisdom genre.  It is a story, driven primarily by dialogue, of a man who has it all and then looses it for no apparent reason.  Throughout the story, Job grapples with how to deal with all the tragedy that has come upon his life.  As we’ll see throughout this story, Job’s friends say a lot to try and explain away the things that are going on in Job’s life, but ultimately it is only God who can provide an adequate explanation for His one working and will.

Job doesn’t happen in chronological order with the previous books that deal with Judah’s exile and return.  Actually, the book of Job is undated.  Some think that it was written during the return of the exile as a way of explaining suffering.  Others think that it was written by Moses about a time during the book of Genesis.  In any case, we do not have a date for this book, but the wisdom of the book is insurmountable.

As we begin the book of Job, we encounter a couple of things that could cause us to be uncomfortable.  The first, and most prominent, is indeed the problem of evil in the world, the suffering that Job deals with that reflects the human condition and the suffering that afflicts all of us throughout our lives.  Job encounters in his life, what seems like punishment for something that he has not done.  Again, this is something that is uncomfortable for us because we don’t understand it and cannot readily explain it away.  I encourage you to feel that discomfort… the explore it… and stay in it for our journey through this book.  Rather than offering up a thoughtless explanation, to read and reflect, being open to the message of Job and the Word that God is speaking here.

Another thing that we encounter right off the bat is the scene in heaven that is depicted here.  It offers us a glimpse and perspective on something that we call “The Divine Counsel.”  This is not necessarily something that the Church, especially in the west, is familiar with.  We see a picture of God sitting in heaven among the angels, perhaps very similar to what we would envision in the creation narrative.  What this reveals is the Hebrew idea of a totally theocentric universe, where everything revolves around God and nothing happens without His approval.  Furthermore, we see even more vividly that nothing happens unless God speaks it into existence.  Again, this is very similar to the creation narrative of Genesis, “And God said…”  What is revealed here, in some ways, is the point being made that creation was never done, but it is an on going and continuous process through which God is continually working in and sustaining all of the universe.  In this, we hear the canonical echos of Jesus’ teaching that “not even a hair can fall from our heads without the will of the Father in heaven.

I hope this introduction to Job helps us to gain some perspective on the general setting for what we are about to read.  Job is, in many ways, a difficult book to read because of the reflection it gives us on our own situation, the suffering that we often encounter in life.  I encourage you, as you encounter this book, to not be like Job’s friends and speak a quick word to yourself to settle your uncomfortable feelings, but instead to sit quietly with it and listen for the Word of the Lord, the all sustaining creator, that we may follow the voice of the Shepherd through this dark valley.

Day 143: Esther 5-10; For Such a Time as This

Esther and Mordecai

Esther and Mordecai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every good story has a great plot twist.  The narrative of Queen Esther has one of the biggest plot twists imaginable.  Yesterday we read about Esther’s rise to the position of Queen and how Mordecai, a no name Jew living in the Capital of Persia is active in the saving the king, even though he is given no credit for it.  In fact, a plot is raised against Mordecai and the Jews because of his refusal to bow to a royal officer named Haman.  Mordecai urges Queen Esther to intervene on behalf of her people.  She had been raised to the throne, appointed by God for such a time as this.  Esther fasts and prayers and, even though it doesn’t expressly say it here, trusts God to be with her as she seeks an audience with the King, an audience that could get her killed.  However, by the grace and providence of God, she doesn’t and the King offers to grant any request, one that she will eventually make during a feast for the king the next day.

Haman thinks he has everything going for him.  He has the Jews on the ropes, and has a plan to see Mordecai hanged.  He even thinks he is getting honored by Queen Esther at the feast he will be going to.  Little does he know what is about to take place.  The plot twist though, comes at a rather unexpected time: the middle of a bad night’s sleep for King Xerxes.  This is really the first in a series of plot twists that sees Haman systematically brought from his prideful position to the point of being hung on the gallows he built.  In these events Mordecai is raised to the powerful position, a complete reversal of what was happening.  The Jews are given the authority to defend themselves against their enemies and even gain, through Mordecai, the second in command seat of the Persian Empire.  This is truly an act of God once again showing God’s providence for His people, even in a land that is not their own, far from Jerusalem and the Temple.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther, by Rembrandt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We can learn a lot from the narrative of Esther.  Clearly we can see that, though not named, God is faithfully providing for His people, continuing as He always has to uphold the covenant with them.  Also evident is the faith that is had by the Jews in this narrative, and the blessings that are bestowed upon those with faith.  Esther and Mordecai have both clearly set their face towards God, and God honors them because of it.  Yet I think that the most prominent thing that comes out of this narrative is the encouragement for stepping out in faith.  Many times I have encountered a situation that I am not comfortable with, one that I don’t necessarily think that I can do well in.  Whether it is interacting with a stranger or standing up for what I believe in, I often find it difficult to feel as though I can actually do certain things.

However, I don’t believe that I have ever actually faced death in any of these situations.  Indeed, I can’t imagine that an interaction with a friend in which I need to express my beliefs would result in any sort of physical harm for myself, and yet I still fear to do it.  Queen Esther is willing to risk her life for her people, to stand up to the powers that be in the face of a possible death sentence made on the whim of a King in a foul mood.  She is not deterred though.  Esther turns to God through fasting and prayer, and then doesn’t what she has been called to do, what she has been placed there to do.  She has been chosen for such a time as this to save the Jews from almost certain destruction.  I wonder… is there something that you have been chosen for?  Is there something that you need to do or someone that you need to talk to?  Have you been placed in a position to make a difference?  Do not fear!  Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him and He will act!

Day 142: Esther 1-4; Esther the Hebrew Queen

Today we take a step backwards in history, to the time when some of the people of God are still in exile.  The particular dates of the book of Esther happen after the edict of Cyrus goes out allowing the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, the first wave of people to return to Jerusalem.  The Persian king that is referenced here, Ahasuerus, is actually the Persian King Xerxes I, who reigned over much of the known world.  As we read, from India to Ethiopia.  That is a major chunk of the world today, and as you can see by the map here, a fairly major chunk of the known world back then as well.

The Persian Empire in the Time of Esther Photo Credit:

The Persian Empire in the Time of Esther
Photo Credit:

Though God is never explicitly mentioned in the entire book of Esther, we can very clearly see His hand at work in all of this, once again providentially providing for His people, even in their time of Exile.  The fact that Esther even has a chance to come before the King, much less become queen is indeed an act of God.  Generally speaking, the Hebrew people were despised by other nations.  Remember all the way back to Egypt, when the people had to live in another region of the land because they were Hebrews?  This is why Mordecai instructs her to keep her identity and ethnicity a secret.  So we see that king chooses her and appoints her queen, an act that can also be attributed to God.  As she rises to the throne though, she is not left to fend for herself.  With the help of Mordecai she is able to thwart the assassination attempt on Xerxes.

Xerxes I was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah ...

Xerxes I was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah (Emperor) of the Achaemenid Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The true conflict of the narrative of Esther arises when we meet Haman, a new addition to the court of King Xerxes.  We read that Mordecai refuses to bow down or pay homage to Haman, which makes him angry.  This is a clear example of the Hebrew Mordecai remembering his identity as a chosen member of Israel.  Though he is far from his land, he clearly has not forgotten the God that he serves.  Mordecai’s actions make Haman furious though, leading to the plot to kill all of the Jews throughout the kingdom of Persia.  This is, as you can imagine, a potential disaster for the Hebrew people.  Yet God is so easily thwarted from His plans and promises to His chosen people and Mordecai points this out.  Esther has been chosen for such a time as this, appointed to a position where she can change the course of this evil plot…

Have you ever found yourself in a position like this?  I mean sure, you probably have been selected to be a king or queen, you might not be able to pass laws or issue decrees, but Have you ever found yourself in a position of influence where you can change things?  Correct injustices?  Speak on behalf of those with no voice?  In many ways, Queen Esther could be the face of the growing social justice movement that has become a major player in both Christian circles and in the political arena as well.  We, in the Western Church, find ourselves in some of the wealthiest, most prosperous conditions in the whole of the known universe.  We throw away things that people fight for on a daily basis in 3rd world countries.  I wonder what would happen in the church in America opened its eyes collectively to these issues?  We have resources upon resources.  We are called to reach out to the poor, the elderly, the sick, the lonely, and the lost.  We are called to be the voice of those who have none.  Perhaps we have been appointed to do this work in such a time as this.

Day 141: Nehemiah 11-13; Dedication of the Wall

Bible Timeline Photo Credit:

Bible Timeline
Photo Credit:

One other great thing has taken place that we read about today as well.  Not only has the Temple been completed, as we read is Ezra, and the wall been completed, as we read a 2 days ago, but there is a celebration to dedicate the wall now that it is indeed finished.  The point of this celebration though is not to honor the achievements of the people, the point is given glory, honor, and thanks to God for his faithfulness and providence.  Certainly this process hasn’t been an easy one for the returned exiles; many people did not wish to see this city rebuilt.  But the people pressed on, putting their faith in God, and the reward is God’s faithfulness in helping them to complete it.

Again we see to, that in the midst of this celebration, the read from the Book of Moses, the words of the Law are heard yet again.  It is clear that these Jews have indeed found their identity once again in God, and God continues to speak to them through His Word.  Interestingly, as they read this time they discover something that, it seems, they didn’t know before.  Curious as this is, seeing as just yesterday we read about how they read through it for extended periods of time, I think it also reveals the transformative and active nature of the Word of God.  Just because they read it for for six hours one day doesn’t mean that they got it all in.  Indeed, every time we read the Word of God we are spoken to through the Holy Spirit and transformed in our hearts.  Neither us nor they will ever be able to say that they’ve “gotten their fill” of the Bible.  Scripture is one of our chief identifiers!  It is the way that God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity, the way He speaks to us and through which He works to transform us.

Nehemiah is, in many ways, responding to the call of the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.  He is writing these words on His heart.  He is teaching them to the people.  He is bringing Scripture to every occasion.  And in this, he is also setting an example for the people of God, showing them the Scripture is the very center of their lives.  The Word of God is indeed living and active, and it will transform you through the work of the Spirit if you too respond to the call of God to “write these words on your heart.”

Day 140: Nehemiah 8-10; Covenant Renewal

As we have been talking about for the past few weeks now as we have journeyed through the Chronicle and through Ezra and now Nehemiah, we are reading through the process by which the people of God, the returned exiles of Judah are re-identifying themselves.  They are discovering who they are anew by way of remembering where they have come from and linking themselves with the God that has called them and brought them to this point.  We have, in many ways, looked back with the Jews from the building of the wall in Jerusalem all the way back to Adam and creation, seeing for ourselves the direct link that saw the people of God brought to Jerusalem at this time by the providence of God almighty.

Ezra Reads the Law Photo Credit:

Ezra Reads the Law
Photo Credit:

Today we see what is arguably the peak of that process coming to fruition in Jerusalem.  The people have finished the work on the wall and they are ready to celebrate!  In their desire to celebrate, they have a worship service of sorts in which the book of the Law is read.  Likely, this is the book of Deuteronomy, the summary book of the all the Law of Moses.  This probably wasn’t quite like any worship service that you or I have ever been too.  It started on the first day of the seventh month, when they read the book of the Law from “early morning until mid-day.”  Then they all went home and had a feast!  Not your average Sunday morning I would assume.

The next day, they all got together again and read from the book of the Law and discovered the festival of booths which was to take place once a year.  In this they were to stay in little huts, to remind them of the time that they were in Egypt and in the Wilderness, yet another way of helping them to connect with the past through remembering.  Interestingly, for the Hebrew people. remembering isn’t just simply calling to mind some stuff, it is as if they are participating in the actual event.  The Greek word for this is “anamnesis.”  It is more than just thinking about it, it is also participating in it.  As the Hebrew people celebrated this 8 day festival, they participated, by calling to mind and doing action, in the events of the exodus and wilderness wanderings.

Ezra Reads the Law of Moses Photo Credit:

Ezra Reads the Law of Moses
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A couple days after this is done, the whole assembly gets back together again and this time reads from the book of the Law for 6 hours and then they pray and confess their sins.  Once again we have an example of how the Hebrew people connect with God.  They don’t just confess the sins that they have done, but the sins of their fathers and ancestors.  And then, once again they recall their history, remembering who they are because of whose they are and reaffirm the covenant.  Nehemiah 9 is one of the most beautiful chapters of the Bible when it comes to remembering God’s actions throughout their history.

Now I can’t imagine being in a worship service for that long, or for that many days.  We certainly haven’t adopted the practice of reading Scripture at these great lengths.  Yet I wonder if we might have lost something in not doing this from time to time.  We break up Scripture and segment it, and then roll it up into one or two pithy moral statements and call it a sermon.  I wonder what would happen if we were to read large chunks of Scripture at a time.  I wonder what would happen if we were to be open to just letting Scripture speak, rather than developing a sermon.  How do you think you would be impacted, say, if someone read the whole Gospel of Matthew or the entire book of Deuteronomy to you?  Do we even believe that the Word of God is that powerful and would have any sort of impact on our lives?  I wonder what that kind of a mentality would do to us and for us on a Sunday morning if we say… truly opened ourselves up to the transforming work of the Spirit through the Word of God?

Day 139: Nehemiah 5-7; The Completion of the Wall

As I read through these chapters of Nehemiah, I think of one thing: Transformation.  At the same time that Nehemiah and the people are working to build the wall, an act that will transform Jerusalem from a defenseless pile of rubble into a defensible city once again, so too are Nehemiah and the people working to transform their lives to be more like the people of God that they are called to be.  Part of this was happening yesterday in the way that, through dependence and trust in God the people continued to build the wall of Jerusalem despite the threats and jeers of the people of the land that wanted to see them fail.  They were living in the city of David, their home.  It was the place that they were called back to.  Yet without a wall it really is just a pile of rubble on a hill, without any means of protection from all that was around them.

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem

Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, as we see the people working and trusting God with their lives rather than succumbing to fear and doubt, we see the transformation begin to take place.  The gates get built, the wall gets connected, the gaps are filled in.  Their enemies may not like it, but who can stand against the power of God working in and through the people?  More and more they work and trust and the wall is built up to completion.  When the wall is complete though, they don’t just leave it alone.  No, Nehemiah assigns people to the wall, gatekeepers, guards, and I’m sure (though it doesn’t say this) people to tend to the wall as well to continue to keep it strong.

At the same time that all this is happening, Nehemiah is dealing with another crisis as well.  The poor in the community seem to be getting poorer while the rich seem to be living off the backs of the poor.  People are selling themselves and their children as slaves to their brothers and sisters because they can’t pay their debts.  Others were selling their fields and lands, which would have been their means to make money, just so they could pay off others.  We read that there was a great outcry from the poor among them, and when Nehemiah heard of this, he was outraged.  But not, I think, for the reasons we might think he would be.

We hear of people selling themselves into slavery and are usually appalled.  How could someone own a slave?  However, this isn’t the full story of what is going on here.  The Law of Moses, part of their identity as the people of God, expressly forbids the Hebrew people from owning as slaves, their own kinsmen.  This comes directly from Leviticus 25.  In the cultures surrounding Israel, profit was the name of the game.  I know right?  Big surprise.  The people of God, however, we to be set apart from those people.  Where the people of the nations would gladly force their brother, sister, family or friend into slavery, the people of Israel were to care for the poor, look after them, give them a place to eat, and perhaps a job as well.  Never were they to own each other, force each other to pay interest, or be uncaring in a time of need.  So you can see why Nehemiah was upset.  This isn’t to say that slavery is OK… I certainly don’t believe that.  However, this is one cultural difference between then and now that does not translate perfectly.  As Christians we are called to care for the poor, the helpless, the least/last/lost of the world.  The slavery thing doesn’t translate well for us, but caring for those that are in need translates perfectly.

So the culture is being transformed.  The people are working to become more like the people of God that they are called to be.  And the city is being transformed.  Through work and trust in God the people are building a wall that can raise up the city and make it defensible and great once again.  This is not unlike our own lives is it?  We are called to be people that are set apart for God as well aren’t we?  We are called to live lives that are “worthy of the calling that we have received.”  As we live and grow, we are also transformed through the work the Spirit.  We call this sanctification.  The Spirit moves, we respond; and it all happens because of the power of God working in us.  Like the people of Israel who trusted in God protect them while they worked, and the same people that yielded to God’s work and teaching in their lives to take care of the poor, so do we need to open our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit that we too may be transformed into the image of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Day 138: Nehemiah 1-4; Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem

Bible Timeline Photo Credit:

Bible Timeline
Photo Credit:

The life of Nehemiah happened around the same time as the life of Ezra.  However, as we enter into the book of Nehemiah, a little time has passed between the rebuilding of the Temple and when Nehemiah comes into the picture.  The timeline here may give a bit of perspective.  We pick up the narrative here in a time before Nehemiah’s return when some of the people of Judah have returned and the rebuilding of the Temple is either complete or almost complete.  What we do know is that Ezra had returned already and there had been word sent back to the Persian Capital where Nehemiah worked as a cup bearer.  He receives word that the city of Jerusalem still lies in ruins and the walls have not been rebuilt.  Understandably, this makes him sad and moves him to prayer and fasting.  Nehemiah’s plea to God, like Ezra’s prayer yesterday is beautifully heartfelt.  Because of Nehemiah’s true heart and repentance, God hears his prayer and makes it possible for Nehemiah to return back to Jerusalem.  Like the first group of exiles that returned, Nehemiah is given all of the materials he needs to complete the task given to him by God.  King Artaxerxes is completely agreeable to this proposal and fully ready to aid in this question.  As Nehemiah points out, this could only be due to the providence of God.

Nehemiah’s journey happens without incident due to the letters he is carrying from the King and he is able to acquire all the things he needs for the rebuilding of the walls and the gates of Jerusalem.  Three days after he arrives in Jerusalem, he goes out by night to survey the wall and sees the true work that is cut out for him.  Later too, he encounters a great deal or resistance to the project, yet he does not despair.

As I read this passage and think about the monumental undertaking this must have been for the people of Judah, I can’t even imagine the amount of negative thoughts that must have been plaguing Nehemiah and the people of Judah as they looked  at the task they had to accomplish.  This would only have been worsened by the continual taunting and jeering that came from Sanballat and the others with him who did not want the people of Jerusalem to finish the wall.  Yet Nehemiah keeps his focus right where it needs to be, and as a leader, keeps the focus of the people where it needs to be as well.  This casts a sharp contrast between Nehemiah and the kings of Israel and Judah that we were reading about not so long ago.  He doesn’t loose hope or turn to the gods of other lands, but instead does the practical thing of arming the people and ensuring that they be on guard, and then reminds them that it is not their might, but the power of God that will fight for them.  Nehemiah is not detured in the slightest, but instead keeps his focus spot on, and we see the result: the work continues and the enemies are frustrated and deterred.  God has once again shown his faithfulness to His people, a people that this time have turned and placed  their trust fully in Him.

Day 137: Ezra 8-10; Sins of the Exiles

Upon arriving back in Jerusalem, Ezra doesn’t find everything perfect among the people.  I imagine him arriving and there being a lot of celebration or that kind of glassy-eyed look that one gets when they start a new job.  We often call it the “honeymoon phase.”  Everything seems ok, nothing really going on to upset anyone.  Everyone is happy that you’re there, no one is looking for problems.  Ignorance is bliss… but not for Ezra.  When he arrives in Jerusalem, he gets right to work.  We read about him being set by Artaxerxes, the king Persia, who allows Ezra to return to his own land with any that want to go, and gives Ezra a blessing for his journey.  Ezra rounds up the people, which are listed in chapter 8 and beings his long journey to Judah.

Esdras-Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who l...

Esdras-Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who led about 5,000 Israelite exiles living in Babylon to their home city of Jerusalem in 459 BCE. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, when he arrives, it would be understandable for him to take a few days break before he gets to work… but not Ezra.  No, he jumps in with both feet.  No sooner has he arrived in Jerusalem than an official approaches him and lets him know what the situation is.  Some of the people of God, the returned exiles have intermarried.  This is a major violation of the Law of Moses.  The people of Israel were God’s people, set apart by God Himself to be a holy nation, a “royal priesthood.”  They were supposed to be the representatives of God to the world; a community blessed to be a blessing.  Part of the Law that they were to follow was that they were not to intermarry with other nations.  It was forbidden because of the nature of the people of God being set apart.  It was also forbidden because God knew that the people would be drawn away from him and to the idols of the spouses of other nations.  Its just asking for trouble really and God wanted to make sure that they weren’t exposing themselves to that kind of temptation.

Ezra Prays for the People Photo Credit:

Ezra Prays for the People
Photo Credit:

The prayer of Ezra is a beautiful prayer recognizing the sinful state that they are found in and the true fact that they are unable to do anything about it.  He recounts the people’s current predicament and God’s amazing wonders, abundant faithfulness, and unconditional love.  It kind of reminds me of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Sadly, this particular passage of Scripture has been misquoted many times as a reason to Scripturally oppose inter-racial marriage.  These people take the verses of Ezra completely out of context and think that it is ok to judge people because the person that they love is of a different race or ethnic background.  That is simply not what is being said here.  The Law of Moses was very clear on the reasons for not intermarrying with these certain culture.  It had to do with the sin that they committed before the Lord and the overwhelming temptation that it would have brought on the people of Israel (not that they really needed it).  God had chosen this people and set up the Law that He did so that the people of God would fulfill the purpose that God called them to, being a light and blessing to the nations.  In any case, taking Scripture out of context and using it as proof texting for one’s own personal agenda or to further one’s own beliefs that do not jive with the rest of the Bible is wrong, and it proves nothing except ignorance.  We have to remember that these things are written in a place and context in which we are not familiar.

Besides, today’s reading isn’t about the law that was broken and the sin that was done as much as it is about repentance that takes place and the forgiveness that is given.  The people don’t simply discover the sin and say “oh well” as their fathers would have done before the exile.  Instead, they repent and turn back to God and the Lord honors their repentance.  Sadly though, Ezra ends here on a note of dissonance, pointing out that some of these inter-marriages have produced offspring.  Now these families are broken… and that is where the book ends.  Why do you think this is?  Perhaps pointing out the difficulties in following God?  Perhaps being a cliff hanger for Nehemiah?  Maybe its just something to leave you thinking, and perhaps in some uncomfortable place as we try to figure out how God is at work here to.  What do you think?

Day 136: Ezra 5-7; Rebuilding the Temple

Yesterday we read that there was some trouble in Jerusalem as the process of rebuilding the temple continued.  Some of the people from the land, possibly people from the Northern Kingdom who we would now know as Samaritans, wanted to have a part in building the Temple.  When the people of Judah say no, there is trouble and the building is suspended for a while.  However, when we pick up the story today, it seems that the building has been restarted and is well under way.  The people are diligently at work building the walls of the Temple and all the many things that go into it.

Dedication of the Temple Photo Credit:

Dedication of the Temple
Photo Credit:

Remember a while back, we talked about how we should always be looking for God in the narratives and stories that we read in the Bible?  I think that this is a really good place to be doing that.  Not only has God allowed for His people to travel back to Jerusalem, something that didn’t happen in these old empires, He has again provided a way for them to continue working on the Temple.  And whats more, He continually provides a way for all this to happen just as He said he would.  God is continuing to be faithful to His people even after exile just as He said he would in Leveticus 26.  There is a lot about the curses that God would bring upon His people for their disobedience, yet even at the end God says that He will be faithful to them even in their exile and if the people would turn to them, He would hear them and forgive them and continue to be faithful to them.

After a great deal of hard work we read that the Temple is finished and dedicated.  What an awesome sight this must have been.  Though, even as we read yesterday, I’m sure it was a drop in the bucket compared to the 1st Temple, yet even in this we see that the people have been faithful to God and God has intern blessed them with all the resources and funding that they need, as well as the support of the most powerful ruler of the known world at that time.

What we are seeing here, in many ways, is a fundamental re-identification of the people of God.  Like we talked about in books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, what the returned exiles need here is a way of re-identifying themselves with who they are and whose they are.  In many ways they were “dismembered” in the exile, sent back into the wilderness to be stripped of what they had become, and have now returned to the land that was a part of their identity.  Through the book of Chronicles we see that they have looked back into the past to identify themselves with God through the story that is their Story, the ancestors that are their people.  The re-dedication of the Temple followed by the celebration of the Passover is a fundamental part of their “re-identification,” or their being “re-membered” as the people of God.

Celebration of the Passover Photo Credit:

Celebration of the Passover
Photo Credit:

This also helps us to draw a parallel, one that is evident in the Bible throughout history, the parallel between water and blood.  We draw this parallel when we celebrate… you guessed it… Baptism!  In all the other wilderness experiences that we have seen Judah go through there was one thing that was in common, the passing through of the waters, which we related to Baptism.  Think of the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan, all of these times were points at which Israel was being re-identified some how.  First from a group of slaves into a people of God.  Then from a group of nomads to a nation of God.  They were re-identified through the waters, and each time they either celebrated or had just celebrated the Passover or the rehashing of the covenant.  When the people returned from exile, a 70 year wilderness experience, they may have had to cross the Jordan… the Bible doesn’t say, but they immediately begin the work of recovering their identity.  They start sacrificing to God again, the rebuild the Temple (their spiritual center in the whole world), and they celebrate the Passover, the one feast that sets them apart.

What of the parallel between blood and water then?  In Baptism, we claim that a person is sealed as a covenant member of the people of God.  In circumcision (which is bloody) this was also true of the people of Israel.  When the people of Israel crossed through the Red Sea or the Jordan they were also making a statement that they were God’s people following His command by His power.  In Baptism, at least in infant baptism, we make vows saying that we will raise our children in the ways of God and we will do it by the power of God.  The Passover then, a holiday of remembrance that celebrates that passing over of a household that has blood on its doorpost, a sign that they are indeed the people of God.  Interesting, this is why John refers to Jesus at “the Lamb of God.”  What reference do you think John is making when he refers to Jesus in this way?