The first thing we see in today’s reading is that the high priest and the other priests are leading by example. It was very important for the returned exiles to see their leaders working along side of them. You will notice there were eight working groups, the majority of them working on the wall near what was most important to them. So the high priest and the other priests were working on the northern wall around the temple. The sheep gate was where people brought in their sheep on their way to offer sacrifices at the temple. It is also the gate the priests would use to bring in the sheep for the daily morning and evening sacrifices. This gate was close to the temple.
The tower of the hundred may have referred to its height, 100 cubits. One cubit was eighteen inches. It could also refer to the number of steps there where to reach the top, or a reference to a military unit. Both this tower and the tower of Hananel were major military towers along the northern wall. They helped with the protection of the vulnerable north wall of the city. The fish gate was so named because this where the fish market was. People sold fish here from both the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. Tekoa was and is located about ten miles south of Jerusalem. Verses 6-8 describe work done on the walls and gates on the western side of Jerusalem. Even people who had wealth and people who had less physical jobs helped out with the wall rebuild. There was plenty for everyone to do. The old city gate was the entrance to the oldest part of Jerusalem. It sat on an eastern hill that ran north to the Temple Mount. Gibeon and Mizpah were about six miles north of Jerusalem. The broad wall was located in the newer, western section of the city.
Nehemiah wisely assigned people to work near their homes both to motivate them to do a good job and to reduce travel time. The tower of the ovens might have been used to bake bread or it may have been used to burnish pots, like a kiln. Verses 14-15 focus on the reconstruction of the southern tip of Jerusalem where the Kidron Valley and the Valley of Hinnom meet. And, the king’s garden was a lush area just east of the pool of Siloam. Some believe the pool of Siloam was another name for the kings pool. The rest of the verses in chapter three, 16-32, detail the rebuilding of the new eastern wall. The House of the Heros may well have been the housing unit for David’s mighty men, later serving as a barracks or armory. The tower that projects up from the king’s upper house and court of the guard might refer to a royal complex on the hill of Ophel, just south of the temple area. And the water gate led to the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for the city. It must have opened up into a large area because the reading of the law took place there.
The Persians had stationed Samaritan army officers in Jerusalem to keep peace. Now that the Jews were rebuilding Sanballat, the governor of Samaria was enraged. He mocked the Jews, calling them poor, feeble, and weak. His mockery has a bit of an element of truth. They returning Jews were for the most part not rich, powerful, or many in number. But what everyone forgot was that with the Lord God on their side, they would be invincible. Not only did Sanballat mock the Jews, he mocked their worship of the Lord. There may have been an increase of sacrifices because the Jews were rebuilding and with each section done they gave thanks to God. When the Babylonians set Jerusalem on fire, the fire burned the stones used in the city walls, most likely limestone. The heat from the fire had not only charred the stones but they may have begun to crumble and crack. People were using these stones to rebuild the wall. The reasons Sanballat and Tobiah opposed Nehemiah were not so much religious. They were political. The authority of the governor of Samaria was now threatened by the arrival of Nehemiah, the new governor of Judah. The Arabs, led by Geshem, were no doubt worried what Judah’s strengthening under Nehemiah would do to their lucrative trade enterprise. Nehemiah prayed intently for God to stop those who opposed God’s will. His practice was to cry out to God in times of need. The people worked hard and God enabled them to build rapidly. Finally they built the walls to half their height, probably 10-12 feet tall. Scholars estimate the original walls were 20-24 feet tall. Israel’s enemies were enraged by the speed at which the Jews were rebuilding. And what a daunting task this was. Israel’s enemies attacks were relentless, not so much physical but psychological. Eventually it began to affect morale. Their enemies were; Sanballat and the Assyrians from the north, Arabs from the south, Ammonites from the east and Ashdodites from the west. The workers were tired. There were enormous piles of rubble to move before they could even begin to build and they didn’t feel like there was enough help to do the work. They worked and lived in fear of enemy attack. It was no doubt exhausting. Nehemiah countered by positioning armed guard near the most vulnerable places in the wall. He also made sure that their opponents outside the wall could see the forces ready to defend the city. Their strongest motivation for hope came from Israel’s great and glorious God who had delivered His people from mighty nations before. They were also motivated to protect their own families and properties.
Nehemiah continued to give God the credit for keeping the people safe. God had frustrated their enemies through the prayers of the people, the 24 hour patrol, the open display of force, and the confidence in God’s protection. Through the trumpeter Nehemiah could sound the alarm to direct workers to any place more help was needed. And Nehemiah continued to remind the people that victory was certain if they trusted it the Lord.
As the Jews began to rebuild Nehemiah faced both internal and external opposition to all God was directing him to do. External opposition came from Israel’s enemies. They fiercely opposed the rebuilding of the wall and mocked Nehemiah’s leadership. To meet this opposition Nehemiah posted guards, prayed for God’s help, developed an early warning system, and kept working. Israel’s frustrated enemies made several attempts to disgrace or kill Nehemiah but he had the wisdom to avoid or frustrate their plots while also focusing on the tasks God had given him. Nehemiah also faced internal challenges. We will see that wealthy Jews were mistreating the poor by charging high interest. There were Jews who had married foreigners who worshiped other gods. Many were not tithing or keeping the Sabbath holy. Confronting these problems required a firm commitment to the principles explained in Scripture, boldness in insisting that people follow these divine instructions, and compassion in restoring people to fellowship after the confrontation. And he had to oppose the high priest who had allowed Tobiah to use one of the temple storerooms.
In each of these cases Nehemiah courageously followed the example of earlier leaders such as Moses who opposed the worship of the golden calf; Nathan who opposed king David’s sins; and Jehoshaphat who trusted God to defeat a much stronger enemy. Like these earlier men of God, Nehemiah took a stand for what was right instead of letting those for whom he was responsible go their own ways. He refused to be discouraged or intimidated by internal difficulties or external threats against him. Nehemiah consistently depended on God for wisdom and for blessing on his work. The struggles are not over for God’s people or their leaders. And that continues on even to today.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
We have finished reading about all the kings of the northern and southern kingdoms…at least for now. We will see them in a different light once we begin to read the books of the prophets. With the Book of Ezra we entered what is known as the postexilic period in Israel’s history. In 538 B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia decreed the Israelites who had been held captive for 70 years, could return to Judah and Jerusalem. The altar was rebuilt right away but it took much longer for the temple to be rebuilt. That construction happened in 516 B.C. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem from Persia to help the city put itself back together. The city walls were repaired in 445 B.C. As the exiles made their way back to Jerusalem and Judah their numbers included some 7,289 priests who would serve at the altar and eventually in the temple. But the Levites who worked in the temple were not as anxious to return. About 360 Levites returned plus some other temple servants. So, let’s take a look at just who came back to Jerusalem and Judah. There are lists and numbers of returnees in both Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. Ezra lists 29,818 people and most mentioned were from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. A grand total of 42,360 people returned along with 7,337 servants who were most likely not Israelites. Just over half of the people who returned were lay people from Jerusalem. Not quite 30% were lay people from other cities and then there were the priests, Levites, temple servants and a handful of priests who could not prove their ancestry.
As we have read, there have been long lists of names. Many of us have skimmed the lists. The names are similar and most of them we cannot pronounce. But we see now, the importance of those lists, especially for the Levites and priestly families. In order to be able to serve in the Lord’s temple you had to prove you were a descendant of Aaron and from a Levitical family. Based on your lineage you were assigned tasks and responsibilities in temple service. Those tasks ranged from the high priest who was the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies all the way down to the servants responsible for cleaning up all the blood from the base of the altar. In doing some quick research I found that in modern times Levites are integrated in Jewish communities, but keep a distinct status. There are an estimated 300,000 Levites among Ashkenazi Jewish communities and a similar number among Shepardic and Mizrahi Jews combined. Their population is somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 worldwide. Those Jews who are identified as Ashkenazi refers to Jewish settlers who established communities along the Rhine River in western Germany and northern France dating to the Middle Ages. Their traditional language is Yiddish which is a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages. Shepardic Jews hail mostly from the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal. And for trivia’s sake, Frank Gehry and Norman Lear are modern day Levites.
So we have seen what happened to the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi but what about the other nine? The tribe of Simeon settled in Judah much earlier, when Israel entered into the promised land. Little is known about what happened to the tribes the Assyrians sent into exile in 722 B.C. (2Kings 15:8-17:23) However we read in 2 Chronicles 30 that some members of the tribes of Asher, Manasseh, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Issachar attended the Passover at Jerusalem in 715 B.C. They may have mingled with the southern tribes and so preserved their heritage in Israel. Many other members of the northern tribes intermarried with foreigners and became Samaritans. The apocryphal book of Tobit mentions a member of the tribe of Naphtali living in exile but otherwise, there is little other information. Some of the people of the northern kingdom scattered and settled all over the world, from as far away as Rome all the way south into what we know as Ethiopia today. For these reasons the northern tribes are often called the lost tribes.
As we have read first Ezra and now into Nehemiah we see a couple of things. God’s people are tenacious. It wasn’t just the young and fit who traveled the nearly 1,000 miles from exile back to Jerusalem and Judah. It was a cross section of Jews, young and old, male and female. Some were returning home and others going to Jerusalem for the first time, having been born in captivity. It would have been easy to return to Persia when they saw the mess Jerusalem was in, but they stayed. They built an altar and began to worship the Lord. Their leaders trusted in the Lord’s provision and the people did too. We see that the people were faithful, giving of what they had to begin collecting the materials necessary to rebuild the temple. They trusted in the Lord’s protection and provision. God watched over them and used several pagan authorities to help them along the way. In fact, it was the pagan king Cyrus who allowed them to return home and he, along with king Darius later, commanded others to help the Israelites rebuild.
One of the words we will see more of is remnant. To be a remnant means to remain, or be leftover. A remnant is what survives after a catastrophe. In Ezra and other books the word frequently refers to those Israelites who survived the Exile and returned to resettle the promised land. The prophets use the word to speak not only of a group of Israelites who survive a particular calamity but to those Israelites who remained faithful to God. The concept is central to Isaiah, who prophesies that the Root of Jesse, the Messiah, would one day gather the remnant of Israel from all the nations, even attracting some gentiles to Himself. The remnant therefore becomes a powerful Old Testament theme of covenant faithfulness and salvation, for in sparing His people God maintained a nation through whom all the world would be blessed. All through time there has been a remnant of faithful people. As we move toward the New Testament we see that during the time between the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist, a span of some 400 years, the people did not hear the prophetic voice of God. But there remained a remnant and that eventually included Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist’s parents. We have seen faithful remnants of believers underground in communist China, Russia, and countless other places. God will always leave some to make his name known and to keep the faith alive.
Here is an interesting word. This is found in Nehemiah 1:6. It is Yadah, the word confess. This Hebrew verb has two very distinct meanings. The first is related to the offering of thanksgiving or praise to God. The second is that of confession, such as the confession of God’s greatness and the confession of sin before the lord. The basic meaning of this word, Yadah, Is to throw off or cast off. In one sense, confession is the casting off of sin by acknowledging our transgressions of God’s commandments for holy living. In another sense, confession of sin is thanksgiving because it recognizes that forgiveness of sin is accomplished only by the grace and goodness of God.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Nehemiah left a comfortable job as an assistant to the king of Persia in order to help the demoralized people of Jerusalem, his home city. His work in Jerusalem involved motivating the people to rebuild the city’s walls in spite of their neighbors’ opposition. Nehemiah’s work was not just with bricks and mortar. He also mediated a financial crisis, initiated religious reforms with the help of Ezra the scribe, and reorganized civic responsibilities in Jerusalem. Nehemiah demonstrated that with faith, prayer, integrity, and God’s help, God’s servants can succeed. He was a powerful leader of God’s people living in Judea following their Babylonian exile. He worked to improve the strength of God’s people in the midst of their difficulties. Before returning to Judea, he was the cup bearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia. Being a cup bearer was a position of great trust for it was the cup bearer who brought the king his wine. He would taste the wine first to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. Nehemiah had heard sad reports about Jerusalem and out of compassion he asked the king’s permission to return to Judah to help his people. The Lord moved in the king’s heart and Nehemiah was allowed to go to Judea. Artaxerxes named Nehemiah the governor of the province of Judea for twelve years to help his people rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
While Nehemiah had the support of the Persian king, he faced opposition much closer to home. These were the people of the land Ezra wrote about, people of mixed heritage who lived north of Judea and some who had taken up residence in Jerusalem. Many called these folks Samaritans. Nehemiah showed great courage and skill as he successfully helped the people of Judea rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. We also see that Nehemiah had a strong personal faith, as evidenced in his prayers. He was confident in God’s divine guidance. Nehemiah also advocated for economic justice, rebuked a handful of rich Judeans who were exploiting a food shortage by exacting high interest from their poorer brothers, and he provided an example of better conduct. He was also concerned about the people’s faithfulness, and he individually confronted men who had married pagan women. He had a strong interest in maintaining temple worship and he led the Jewish community to pledge to support temple personnel and provide offerings. He also reformed the sabbath observance. Although there were still some challenges at the end of his tenure in Jerusalem, Nehemiah was an effective leader who restored a national and religious identity to the Jewish settlers in a period of political and economic weakness.
As you read this book here are some things to look for. Prayer was a key part of Nehemiah’s life. In fact, he based his service on prayer. He initiated his plans only after he had consulted the Lord. For Nehemiah, prayer provided the power to accomplish God’s will. Six times Nehemiah repeated a refrain asking the Lord to remember Nehemiah or his opponents. Another theme is that of God’s providence. The Book of Nehemiah emphasizes that God sovereignly controls the lives of the individuals and nations. God is able to restore people from exile and promote one of His servants to be the king’s cup bearer and later the governor of a province. God provided success to Nehemiah and the Jews in the rebuilding of the city walls. He protected His people and frustrated the plans of the wicked. The same God who created the heavens and the earth, called Abram from Ur, and gave the land to Israel…was able to accomplish His will through Nehemiah. We see that dedication to God’s Word is also a theme. The authoritative law of Moses contained God’s instructions on how His people should live. But we have already read how the book of the law was “lost” or ignored or put aside by God’s people. Their not following God’s law put them at odds with the Lord and as a result God disciplined them. Ezra read from the book of the law to restore the nation when they returned from exile, and as a result many of the people rededicated themselves to following the law. They even separated themselves from unbelievers. This would be a recurring problem, even today. The last major thing to watch for is Nehemiah’s courage against opposition. When the Jews began to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem, they faced stiff opposition from three individuals: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. Sanballat was the main leader of the opposition. He was the governor of Samaria, the province north of Judah. He was known as Sanballat the Horonite. He was probably from Upper or Lower Horon, known as Beth-Horon which was about 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Tobiah was part of a family of powerful Jewish aristocrats who lived in Transjordan. The Transjordan was composed of three regions east of the Jordan River from the source of the river near Mount Hermon all the way south to the Dead Sea. In particular this Tobiah was most likely the governor of the area known as Ammon which is part of the Transjordan. There is less known about Geshem, but he was most likely the governor of Dedan. This area included Syria, northern Arabia, Sinai, and northern Egypt.
Nehemiah was in Susa, the political capital of Persia, serving the king. His brother, Hanani came to visit. He may have actually been a blood brother, not a fellow countryman. Hanani brought news of trouble in Jerusalem and the news distressed Nehemiah enough that he sought the Lord in prayer, mourning, and fasting. His prayer included praise, confession, a remembrance of God’s promises, and petition. Nehemiah recognized that Israel’s current situation was not a failure of God’s covenant of unfailing love. Israel’s persistent sin had brought about the punishments entailed in the covenant. And like Ezra, Nehemiah identified with the sins of his people, made no excuses, and accepted both his individual responsibility and the responsibility of the larger group that had sinned against God. Nehemiah also recognized that God could influence the king of Persia to be kind to him.
One of the unwritten rules about serving the king of Persia was that the servants were expected to keep their feelings to themselves and to display a cheerful disposition at all times before him. But anxiety gripped Nehemiah, not so much because of the king’s question but in anticipation of the request he was about to make. He did not know how the king would respond if he shared the reason for his sorrow. We read in Ezra 4:21-22 that this same king, Artaxerxes, had previously ordered that Jerusalem not be rebuilt. Nehemiah was not putting on an act. His deep sadness showed despite his best efforts to conceal it. As Nehemiah prepared to make his request of the king, he uttered a silent prayer to the Lord, knowing full well that the king was subject to the God of Heaven. Nehemiah needed God’s guidance and provision as he made his request. Artaxerxes being open to Nehemiah’s request seemed surprising in light of Jerusalem’s history of rebellion against Persia, but the king may have looked at this as an opportunity to solidify his control over a troubled area of his empire. Nehemiah knew the king’s favorable response was due to the work of the Lord.
Nehemiah left for Jerusalem with army officers, the king’s cavalry, and letters of passage. The trouble with the interference by Sanballat and his friends was that rebuilding the walls meant there would be a shift in power in favor of the Jews. After being in Jerusalem for three days Nehemiah left under the cover of night to inspect the city walls. He needed to see what he was up against, the condition of the walls, and what he would need for their reconstruction. He went at night to avoid detection by the neighbors. He didn’t go all the way around the city, just the southern part of the wall. The Jackals’ well may have been called En-rogel and was a water source about 400 yards south of the city. The Dung gate or the gate of broken pots is at the south end of the western wall. It led out to the Hinnom valley, which the residents of the city used for their garbage dump. There was often a fire burning and it was there in the fire that pagans worshiped the god Molech. The Fountain gate was quite possible in the southeastern wall facing En-rogel and the king’s pool was probably the pool of Siloam.
Nehemiah kept his rebuilding plans secret from both the Persian and Jewish leaders to prevent opposition from being organized. But now after his nighttime inspection he was ready to rebuild. He knew the city was in trouble. The broken walls had brought scorn, ridicule, and disgrace to God’s people and it reflected negatively on God. Jerusalem did not look like the city of the great king and the fact they could not rebuild made God seem weak and ineffective. Nehemiah was not about to take credit for the beginning or the success of the project. He knew the hand of the Lord was upon him. And how much easier things go when we let the Lord lead and guide.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Ezra was a priest and scribe of the high priestly line of Zadok. He was a spiritual leader of the exiles who had returned from Babylonian captivity. He was not only a scribe but a disciplined student of God’s law. He was qualified to teach, preach, and interpret the scriptures. When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with the articles for the temple, he also came to establish God’s laws and the laws of Persia. Judah would be under Persian control. One of Ezra’s first reforms was to confront the sin of the Jews intermarriage with non-believers. Later the city walls would be rebuilt, and Ezra would lead the people to obey God’s law more fully. Ezra had humbled himself before the Lord before they began their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. Now he humbled himself before the Lord for the sins of the Jews unholy marriages, and when he gathered those who had to divorce their unbelieving wives. One of the things we see about Ezra is that he always recognized that God’s gracious hand, not his own ability or wisdom, enabled good things to happen. He was a teacher and a servant leader, not a self-important official who lorded it over other people. Ezra’s piety and dedication through prayer and fasting put his reforming zeal in proper spiritual perspective. He set the pattern for life in postexilic Judah and Jerusalem, making God’s Word and worship their central priorities.
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem he was horrified at the practices of God’s people, in particular the priests and Levites. These were the men who were to lead the people in matters of faith, and they had already gone astray. He immediately went into mourning, tearing his clothes. He also puled hair from his head and beard. This act of Ezra’s is unique in scripture. And Nehemiah will show us a very different response. When confronted with the same issue of intermarriage, Nehemiah pulled out the hair of the offenders! Intermarriage with pagan foreigners was dangerous because the Israelites could end up worshiping other gods and accepting the detestable practices of other religions. Ezra goes so far as to say the holy race has been polluted. Literally the holy seed has intermingled itself. Because Israel was a holy covenant nation it was not to be involved with pagan practices. As a result, the Israelites were to avoid marriages with those who could be a bad influence and cause them to embrace such pagan practices. Once this began to happen the unique identity of God’s people would be lost. The caution about marrying foreigners goes all the way back to Deuteronomy 7:1-6. The sin was not that they married people from other races or countries. It was that they married people committed to other gods. Moses had married a Cushite and we see Rahab and Ruth the Moabite, but these women had embraced the God of Israel.
The marriage covenant is sacred, but it was even more important for Israel to remain faithful to the Lord’s covenant with them as a people. Mixed marriages would produce children who were not fully committed to Israel’s faith, having been introduced to their mother’s idolatrous beliefs. In this society the children stayed with their mothers until they were twelve. At that point, the boys were considered men and they went about with their fathers. Because the majority of the pagan marriages involved women who were pagans, it was believed that the influence the woman would have on their children until they were twelve would result in these children being taught pagan practices. This compromise would lead the Israelites right back to where they were before the exile, to wholesale unfaithfulness to God and a wholehearted embracing of false religions. Ezra’s solution is not prescriptive for today’s believers. In the new covenant under Christ, the faith of a believer sanctifies his or her marriage and children, so marriage to an unbeliever does not threaten the identity or purity of God’s people. But we read in 2 Corinthians 6:14 these words. “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” Paul speaks of not being yoked with unbelievers…don’t do it! Does this person pursue God in the same manner as we are? We need to find someone on the same page as us. This might be the New Testament version, but Ezra is saying the same thing.
Ezra tore his clothes and sat down. He was in shock at the leader’s behavior. He sat there until the time of the evening sacrifice, which is 3:00 p.m. At that time, he stood up and then fell to his knees in prayer and supplication. He lifted his hands up to the Lord and prayed. His prayer here is a great model of intercessory prayer. It included confessing sins, remembering God’s past grace, admitting the people have ignored God, and recognizing their unworthiness. Ezra was not the one who had sinned, but he personally identified with his people. He was brutally honest in his assessment of the people’s past history. The people had sinned and were justly punished. And the effects of Israel’s punishment were still evident in Jerusalem at this time. Ezra recognized that God had shown abundant grace and unfailing love to His people and that should affect how people respond to Him. After all God had done for the remnant, it was shameful that they were so ready to betray Him again.
Ezra recognized the kings of Babylon and Assyria had treated them badly, but the kings of Persia had returned them to their homelands. Keep in mind, God had been more than clear about what he expected from His people. If they were faithful and obedient, they would prosper and know great blessings. But if they were disobedient and unfaithful, they would not prosper and they would not know the wonder of the blessings of the Lord. The choice was theirs and they did not do well in making choices. In his prayer, Ezra asked the Lord if His anger would be enough to destroy His people. And then Ezra reminded God that He is just. He recognized God’s people had no right to stand before Him and they were little more than a remnant. In other words, they were small and powerless. His genuine mourning in response to his people’s sin caused many of the people to join him. Shecaniah was the first to publicly admit he had been unfaithful to God. But admission of guilt gives the hope of forgiveness for sin. By divorcing their pagan wives who they had inappropriately married, they were taking the first step back to being in God’s good graces. Taking this action would renew their commitment to the Sinai covenant. The solemn oath taken served two purposes. It was a promise to take action and a self-imposed curse for failure to do what was promised. Of all the Israelites there were only four dissenters to the command to divorce foreign, pagan wives. Unfortunately, even with the overwhelming support Ezra received from the people it wouldn’t be long until the same problem rose again.
Although the guilty may not have fully realized the gravity of their offense, they had no excuse. The scriptures plainly set forth God’s standards on marriage. All of this may sound harsh. But God wants our total reliance, our total dependance, our total attention and being. In the commandments we read that our God is a jealous God. He does not want to share us with anyone or anything else. Considering the many blessings, He has given us and the gift of eternal life in His son Jesus Christ, what He is asking of us may seem insurmountable. But in the scheme of things we should be moved to give Him all we have.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Today’s reading is short 🙂 and pretty straight forward. So I would like to look at the lives of a couple people. First off there is Artaxerxes I the king of Persia. He was also called Longimanus. He was the son of Xerxes and the grandson of Darius. Artaxerxes ruled in Persia for 40 years, 464-424 B.C. His domain covered most of the civilized world, extending from Egypt to the western edge of India. He came to power after his father was executed. But as was often the case, Artaxerxes then killed his older brother and then his other brother. It is thought this second killing came amid hand to hand combat between the two men. Like many of the Persian rulers, Artaxerxes struggled to maintain the empire. The most significant war during his reign involved an Egyptian rebellion against Persian authority that was complicated by Athenian support for the Egyptians. This war lasted for six years, 460-454 B.C. Ultimately the Persians prevailed. Artaxerxes played a prominent role in the postexilic Jewish community. But the chronology of events is somewhat difficult to unravel.
Sometime prior to 445 B.C. Jews in Jerusalem began rebuilding the cities defenses, but adversaries informed the king and work was halted. We read that yesterday. But, in 458 B.C. Artaxerxes I allowed Ezra, who was in exile in Babylon, to return to Judah as a spiritual leader of the Jewish people. We see this in chapter seven. Meanwhile, Nehemiah served as the kings cupbearer in Sousa, the administrative capital of the empire. In 465 B.C. Artaxerxes commissioned Nehemiah as governor of Judah, a position he held for twelve years. The king gave Nehemiah permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, a feat the Jewish people accomplished in 52 days. Archeological evidence indicates that Ezra and Nehemiah established Judah as an economically viable province. Prior to their arrival Judah had been in a poor and ruinous state as a continuing result of the Babylonian conquest. Artaxerxes I was buried in an elaborate tomb cut into the face of a cliff three miles north of Persepolis, the religious capital of the Persian empire. In the process of re establishing His people, God continued to use many different people to accomplish His tasks.
We do not know if Ezra was a common name but the genealogical description of him at the beginning of chapter seven is fascinating. After a long list of names going all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses, we find out the Ezra who has come to Jerusalem is THAT Ezra. The power that the king gave Ezra is somewhat staggering. In effect he received a blank check to do whatever was needed to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple so God’s people could worship Him as they were supposed to. Ezra’s authority extended to secular fields as well, with grave consequences for disobedience. The only authority Ezra didn’t have was the authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of those who worked in the house of the Lord. The Zadok listed here was a priest under King David. Solomon appointed Zadok as his high priest in place of Abiathar, who supported the rebel Adonijah. The Zadokites, who were regarded as free from idolatry, held the office of high priest until 171 B.C. The Sadducees may have been named after Zadok and the Qumran community looked for the restoration of the Zadokite priesthood.
The other person I want to write about is Ezra. He was a scribe, and scribes occupied an important position as a professional class in the society of the ancient world. The scribal arts of reading, writing, and interpreting written documents assured them a vital role in the affairs of person, state, and sanctuary. Writing was typically performed as a dictation, using a stylus reed pen that was sharpened frequently with a ‘scribes knife’. Scribal training was acquired in schools and was at times viewed as a family trade. Several important people in scripture were scribes. There was Shaphan, who read the book of the law to King Josiah. Baruch recorded the words of Jeremiah the prophet, not once but twice. Ezra copied and read the decrees of Persian kings and the law of Moses. And, the evangelist Matthew applied his scribal training toward the composition of the first gospel in the New Testament. Scripture presents scribes accurately as royal recorders who preserved the will of kings. They occupied important posts within the military and they are often depicted with the high priest as close advisors of kings. Many scribes were priests themselves and they were trusted with the preservation, interpretation, and exposition of scripture. Scribes became widely regarded as men of great wisdom and learning. All of these ideals became focused in the person of Ezra. He was an important figure in traditional Judaism who represented the ideal model for the rabbinic sage as a faithful man of learning, scholarship, counsel, and service. Due to their importance and responsibility as preservers of tradition, scribes were also subjected to the scrutiny of prophetic critique.
As Ezra prepared to return to Jerusalem and he looked over the list of those who were returning with him, he noticed there were no sons of Levi among the returnees. Zerubbabel had faced a similar problem. Over 4,000 priests returned with him but only 74 Levites. Ezra would need more servants to work in the temple. The location and significance of Casiphia is uncertain. It has been suggested that it might be Ctesipon on the Tigris River, near modern day Baghdad. There may have been as Jewish sanctuary located there. God provided Ezra with a number of Levites from Casiphia because of Iddo, the chief man there. Once the Jews were on the road to Jerusalem, this large caravan would have been an easy target for robbers. Knowing the returnees needed help, Ezra proclaimed a fast as a symbol of their submission to God. To persuade the king to let him return to Jerusalem, Ezra had told the king about the power and wrath of the Lord. When Ezra received the king’s permission to return, he was ashamed to ask for an armed army escort, hence the fast asking the Lord for protection. It took four months for the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The journey was slowed down because of the presence of the youth and the elders.
God’s handiwork can be seen all over the end of the Jewish exile, their rebuilding, and their travel through hostile territory. God is not any less present in our lives today. Whether the Old Testament or the New we are reminded that the Lord will never leave us or forsake us.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
The altar of the Lord has been rebuilt. The majority of the exiles who returned were from two tribes, Judah, and Benjamin. They were worshiping the Lord by bringing offerings and by offering up sacrifices on the new altar. But trouble was brewing. When the northern kingdom had been overrun by the Assyrians, they had settled other people in that land. There were still some Jews left there but their numbers were small. The foreigners who settled in the land learned about the Lord when they entered the land of Israel but had also continued to worship their old gods. These people wanted to ‘help’ the returning exiles in rebuilding the temple because they worshiped the same god. Except they didn’t. With a unified voice, the tribal leaders spoke against the foreigner’s proposal, which would have opened the door for their idolatrous beliefs. These Jews did not want to make the same mistake as their ancestors, who were sent into exile as a result of worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. Because these foreigners realized they would have no way to influence the Jewish community the foreigners took hostile measures to neutralize the growing political power of the Israelites. Hostilities with the neighboring people were not new. They were just annoying at this point, and they did not want to see either the temple or Jerusalem rebuilt by the Jews. The neighbors are called the people of the land, later referred to as Samaritans. They showed their opposition all the days of Cyrus and even until the days of the rule of Darius. They made threats and perhaps disrupted supply routes making it difficult to get the materials needed to build.
The Jews were determined to continue building although there was a work stoppage between 536-520 B.C. Cyrus began the project and King Darius finally ordered the temple rebuild to be finished. In between the people of the land wrote letters to the Persian king detailing all the things the Jews had done and were about to do. They were rebellious, couldn’t be trusted, and were planning a revolt or uprising. These men who wrote the letter listed their names, professions, and national origins. As we read the letter it is almost like reading one group of kids writing to snitch on another group of kids. The first correspondence brought the work stoppage and hostility. When the kings records were first searched they found confirmation of the Jews rebellion, no doubt referring to the revolts of Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. They also discovered that Jewish kings had ruled over a large region under the reigns of king David and king Solomon. Later correspondence would reveal the Jews were within the law in their rebuilding of the temple of the Lord.
So, a bit about Persian kings. Cyrus was the king who defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and Judah. He reigned from 559-530 B.C. He was followed by Cambyses II who ruled from 530-522 and Bardiya who ruled in 522 B.C. Next up was Darius I the great who ruled from 522-486 B.C. And when he died his son, Ahasuerus took the throne and ruled for 20 years, until 465 B.C. Ahasuerus also had a Greek name, Xerxes. This is the king who appears in the Book of Esther.
Eventually the prophets Haggai and Zechariah came to Jerusalem and Judah and prophesied to the people. Both of these prophets have books with their names on them. Haggai said the people had lost sight of their priority of rebuilding the temple and as a result, the people, under Zerubbabel and Joshua begin the work once again. Zerubbabel was the civil governor and Jeshua was the high priest as they led the people in rebuilding. Tattenai was a regional governor and most likely a powerful man since
there were only 20 regional governors in all of Persia. These men were also known as satraps. Zerubbabel would have been under his jurisdiction. However, the eye of their God was upon the people. In other words, the Lord was watching over his people, the leaders in particular. God was protecting and watching over those who obeyed His command. The fact that Tattenai had to take his case to the king showed he still had to follow protocol despite his own power. He was bound to follow the process of Persian custom and law. The walls Tattenai was speaking of were the walls of the temple, not the city walls. That would come later when Nehemiah arrived. Timber was used for the beams of the temple floor and roof. Most of the temple construction was done with massive stones, but beams and slats were also used. We read that though the Jews acknowledged that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple, they traced the cause not to his power but to their sin and God’s ultimate judgement. Tattenai eventually asked that a search be made in the kings treasure house to see if King Cyrus really did issue an edict that allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple. A scroll was found and recorded on it was in fact Cyrus’s edict. This allowed King Darius to order Tattenai and others away from the work of rebuilding the temple. And they were ordered to allow the Jews to rebuild this house of God. God was at work in all of this. Not only did the Persians find the decree of Cyrus but king Darius added his own edict to that of Cyrus. The Jews were doing what was legal. Not only could Tattenai not stop reconstruction of the temple, he also had to fund its completion. Any violation of this decree was punishable by death. Death was by hanging except it wasn’t hanging. Hanging here does not mean having a rope placed around your neck. It means being impaled on a sharp pole, sometimes alive, and most often in public as a grim warning to others. This form of public death was not unlike the Roman crosses we will see later. In fact it is recorded that king Darius impaled 3,000 Babylonians when he took the city. Tattenai diligently carried out his orders and there is no indication given that he mistreated the Jews in any way.
The Jews prospered because they were being obedient to the Lord. He blessed His people because they listened to the words of the prophets and the preaching of the Word. Once the temple was completed the people celebrated. Some scholars suggest that Psalms 145-148 were used in this celebration. Just like with the first temple, the celebration involved the offering of many sacrifices. The law laid down the duties of the priests and Levites. But the most holy place was left empty. There was nothing in the Holy of Holies. It appears the ark of the covenant was lost through the Babylonian conquest. With the completion of the temple the Jews can gather to celebrate their feasts and holidays. The first was the Passover. It is interesting to note the slight changes that were made in the Passover over the years. Originally the Passover lamb was killed by the head of each household. (Exodus 12:6) In the days of Hezekiah, the Levites killed the Passover lambs for everyone who was not clean. ( 2 Chronicles 30:17) In the days of Josiah, the Levites killed all of the Passover lambs for everyone. ( 2 Chronicles 35:10-14) And here the priests and Levites had purified themselves so they could perform the duties of their office and they killed the Passover lambs for everyone. You will also note that in this first Passover back in the promised land, anyone who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations was allowed to eat the meal. Now the community was based on faith and not ancestry. Many who had separated themselves were Israelites who had remained in the land after the northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. They were a remnant of faith in the Lord. And the filth spoken of here was the idolatry practiced by the pagans along with their intermarriage with foreigners. Even non Israelites who expressed faith in the Lord and a willingness to follow His laws, commands, and statutes were welcome. This celebration was followed by the seven day Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Finally, there is a reference made to the king of Assyria here. This is actually King Darius. Even though he was actually the king of Persia, Darius could be called the king of Assyria because he was the ruler of the former realm of Assyria. It seems that the Persian kings adopted a variety of titles, much as they accumulated gods. They used the title king of Babylon occasionally as well. The Persians assimilated the best ideas…gods and titles…from the cultures under their domination, adopting what seemed to fit and discarding what did not.
With the temple rebuilt and the people worshiping and serving the Lord, things were looking up for God’s people. The city walls were still in shambles and the neighbors continued to harass the Jews but they were moving forward, one daunting task and then another.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
We saw at the end of 2 Chronicles the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonians taking the Jews into exile in Babylon. About 130 years before Ezra came to Jerusalem, in 458 B.C., God punished Judah’s persistent wickedness by sending the Babylonians to destroy the city, demolish the temple, and take thousands into exile. While they were in exile in Babylon the Israelites were able to build homes, have gardens, and live a fairly good life with some religious freedoms. Some Israelites even attained positions of power. But God had promised to return His people to the holy land after 70 years. Around 559 B.C. the Persian prince Cyrus II subdued the Medes and fused them into what would become the Persian Empire. In 539 B.C. the Persians defeated the Babylonians, paving the way for this promise to be fulfilled. One year later Cyrus began to allow the Jewish people to leave Babylon. Sheshbazzar led the first group back.
When the Israelites were deported to foreign lands, both the Assyrians and the Babylonians had settled other conquered peoples in the land of Israel. The returning exiles found these foreigners inhabiting the land that they sought to reclaim and rebuild. The foreigners claimed to worship the same God as the Jews, but they actually had created a religion that was a melting pot that combined both pagan and Jewish ideas and practices. They wanted to worship with the returning Jews but that would have meant a spiritual compromise for the Jews. So, they refused these people have any part in their community. It caused delays in the rebuilding of both the temple and the city of Jerusalem, but they figured it was better to take longer to build than compromise their faith and worship.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you read the Book of Ezra. First of all, we see God’s sovereignty. He is sovereign over all people and rulers, even pagan ones. He controls history and orchestrates events for his own purposes. Despite opposition, God will fulfill His promises and protect His people. God protected His people as they traveled back from Babylon to Judah and Jerusalem. Ezra recognized that the future of the nation was in God’s hands. Second, we see that God’s people must be pure and separate from the sinfulness of the world. Ezra was a priest and being set apart as God’s people was one of his convictions. The early returnees were also adamant that the foreigners would not have a part in who they were or what they did. When Ezra arrived later, after the Jews had settled in, he discovered the commitment to remain separate had been watered down and he set about leading the people to renew their covenant with the Lord. Third is the importance of following God’s Word. As a scribe Ezra was determined to study and obey the law of God and teach it to others. Ezra repeatedly explained his decisions by pointing to God’s instructions in scripture. Fourth is the importance of intercessory prayer. This invites God’s compassion and power. Ezra’s prayer of confession in chapter 9 is a model of humility in seeking God’s grace. Ezra knew these sinful people would not be moved by a sternly worded sermon condemning them. Instead, he tore his clothes, wept, and mourned over the sinfulness of the nation. God powerfully used his confession to pierce the hearts of the people, and a great revival took place. Similarly, Ezra had fasted and prayed for safety on their journey because only God could protect them. Lastly, we see the theme of restoration. Ezra describes not only the restoration of the temple but also the renewal of the spiritual, moral, and social fabric of the community. The overt goal may have been the restoration of the temple, but the restoration of the Jews sense of community and heritage was equally important. It was essential that they reclaim the separateness that distinguished them from everyone else. This marked them as God’s people. Organizing them around God’s law and renouncing the compromises they had made with the nations around them were crucial steps to that end.
The prophet Jeremiah had prophesied that the Jews would be in captivity for 70 years. At the beginning of Ezra, we see that the time had passed, and Cyrus was willing to let the Jews return home. God used Cyrus to help the exiles rebuild the temple. So, a few things about Cyrus. This is Cyrus II or Cyrus the Great. He ruled from 559-530 B.C. He was a renowned statesman and conqueror who founded the Persian Empire…modern day Iran. Cyrus inherited the rule of a small territory called Pars, located in Southern Iran, the kingdom of Lydia in Western Turkey and territories to the east. Eventually he ruled from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. Isaiah prophesied of Cyrus’s deliverance of the Jews from captivity calling him the Lords anointed. Cyrus was a beneficent king who allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands and restore their places of worship. This included the Jews who were living in exile. Cyrus was not dedicated to the God of the Jews. History shows he worshiped Marduk of Babylon. Israel regarded Cyrus as called and empowered by God to free them. Cyrus was not the Messiah, but what he did served as an example of what the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would later do in setting God’s people free from servitude.
Cyrus came to power and the Lord moved in him to return the Jews back to their promised land. Cyrus was obedient to the Lord’s promptings and he released the Jews to go home. He even returned all the objects taken from the temple of the Lord to them. This consisted of 5,400 pieces of gold and silver. Once again, we see a list of names. It was important to be able to identify which tribe you were a part of, especially for the Levites and priests. If you could not prove your genealogy, you would not be allowed to serve the Lord in the temple and at His altar.
A bit about names here. We see that Sheshbazzar brought the Jews back to Judah and Jerusalem. It was common for the Jews to be given an ‘official’ Babylonian name. (Think Daniel and his three friends.) Sheshbazzar is a Babylonian name but this was most likely Zerubbabel who had risen to the position of a deputy governor of Judah. Zerubbabel was the son of Shealtiel and the grandson of Jehoiachin, the next to last king of Judah. He was the last of the Davidic line to be entrusted with political authority by the occupying powers. Zerubbabel was an ancestor of Jesus. Jeshua is the same person as the Joshua of Haggai 1:1. He was the son of the High Priest Jehoiada, who was taken into exile. But the Nehemiah listed here is not the same as the Nehemiah who wrote the book that bears his name. Jeshua the high priest was the grandson of Seraiah who had been put to death by Babylonian forces. Since there was no king in Jerusalem after the exile the high priest’s office took on great prestige and political power. By the time of the New Testament, priestly involvement in politics had led to great corruption in the priesthood and discontent among the Jews. Whew!!
Now we come to the rebuilding of the temple. The returning Jews gathered in Jerusalem first to rebuild the altar so that they could offer sacrifices to the Lord and then the next year they began to rebuild the temple. They had neither the resources nor the manpower to rebuild the same sort of temple as Solomon had. But they were thankful for what the Lord had enabled them to accomplish and that was a cause for a great celebration. It wasn’t about what the people had been able to do but what the Lord had enabled them to do. Many were excited but a few remembered the old temple. There was both joy and disappointment that day. It all depends on what the people expected. The shouts of joy were intermingled with the sobs of disappointment and the noise was heard far away. God is still sovereign, even when things do not turn out as we had planned.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
This is the last of the southern kingdom of Judah. Seven final kings until Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon. While Hezekiah was a very good king who walked in the ways of the Lord and of his father David, his son Manasseh was just the opposite. Scripture tells us he walked in the abominations of the nations, just like Ahaz. And he reigned a long time, 55 years. Manasseh undid all the good his father did and found more ways to disobey the Lord. He practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft and sorcery, consulted mediums and spiritists and even worse, sacrificed his sons in fire worshiping the Canaanite god Molech. The Lord sent prophets to turn Manasseh back to him to no avail. God’s ancient promise never to remove the people of Israel from the land they had inherited was conditioned on their obedience to all the covenant stipulations…law, statutes, and ordinances…to which they had sworn. Manasseh’s behavior greatly jeopardized the presence of the people in the land. The Lord used the Assyrians to discipline Manasseh and the Jews and they carried Manasseh off to Babylon. In his affliction Manasseh implored the Lord and humbled himself greatly before the Lord. The Lord heard him and brought him back to Jerusalem. Then Manasseh knew the Lord was God. When Manasseh returned he built a wall outside the city of David. He put military captains in all the fortified cities. And best of all, Manasseh removed all the foreign gods and idols from the house of the Lord. He also removed all the altars to other gods and tossed them out of the city. All of this was a sign of their conversion and devotion to God. Removing all the high places meant there was only the temple in Jerusalem as a place to worship. When Manasseh died he was buried in his palace. Even though he had truly converted, his prior sin had been so heinous that he was denied burial in the royal cemetery.
Amon was Manasseh’s son and took the throne after his father died. He was as evil as his father had been at first. Amon served all the idols his father had and he did not humble himself…ever…before the Lord. His servants killed him in his own house, perhaps remembering how his father had changed when he turned towards the Lord. The people of the land then killed the people who killed Amon. His son Josiah began to reign. He was eight years old. Eight!!! Even though his father had no regard for the Lord, Josiah not only did what was right in the eyes of the Lord but he also walked in the ways of his father David. Once again the altars to Baal and the Asherah poles came down. Any idol or image was destroyed and he burned the bones of false priests on their altars. Josiah’s purge of the idolatrous cults was not limited to Judah and Bethel but extended from the south…Simeon…to the north…Naphtali.
Josiah’s reformation was one of the pivotal events of Old Testament history, but it was ultimately a failure since the people did not truly change their ways. Josiah wanted to consolidate worship in the temple so that the paganism that had flourished around the high places would be shut down and the religious life of the people would be easier to control. Images and altars were destroyed not only in Jerusalem and Judah but also in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, Simeon, and as far north as Naphtali. Ultimately this movement was top down and had little effect on popular religious practices. In 622 B.C. while the temple was being repaired Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of the Lord that had been given to Moses. He gave it to the scribe Shaphan who read it to King Josiah. This caused Josiah to tear his clothes in grief because the Israelites had for generations disregarded God’s laws. Josiah sent a delegation to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of the Lord.
The book of the law of the Lord’s discovery began a great revival in Israel. It was the impetus that began Josiah’s religious revival. Technically this book was the first five books of the Bible but at the very least it included the book of Deuteronomy. The reading of the law of the Lord caused Josiah to judge himself. He humbly confessed that he and the people had neglected God’s commands. After learning more about it’s truths Josiah shared the scripture with others and led them in following it. He has the book read before the entire nation and led the Israelites in recommitting their lives to the Lord though many may have made the commitment never intending to keep that commitment. By the time the book of the law was read the Lord was angry. He had intended to destroy all of Israel but because Josiah humbled himself, the Lord held off on His punishment and Josiah lived out his life in peace. Part of Josiah’s reform included the celebration of the Lord’s Passover. Josiah and his administrators donated large amounts of animals for sacrifice. This became the tradition and that allowed the priests to gain influence and power over the people. There were burnt offerings and thank offerings and peace offerings as well as the Passover. Musicians played and there was worship and praise. It was most unusual to have this combination of festivals and offerings all on the same day. It had been almost 400 years since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings had held so great a Passover in all that time. Josiah was 26 years old in this eighteenth year of his reign.
In 609 B.C. when Josiah was in his thirty first year of his rule and still a young man of 39, Pharaoh Neco II marched his army north to aid the Assyrians in their attempt to hold off the Babylonians. Josiah, in an effort to undermine this force, who were dominant in the region, tried to head Neco off at Megiddo. The Judahite army was soundly defeated and Josiah lost his life. As a result Judah became subject to Neco until 605B.C. when the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians. After Josiah’s death his son Jehoahaz was made king. He only ruled three months and Pharaoh Neco replaced him with Josiah’s oldest son Jehoiakim. Jehoahaz was banished to Egypt, where he lived out the rest of his days.
Jehoiakim ruled for eleven years but he changed his loyalty from Egypt to Babylon. He was a trusted vassal of Babylon for three years and then he rebelled against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem to punish him. Nebuchadnezzar bound Jehoiakim to carry him off to Babylon. He did not actually take him away, since Jehoiakim reigned until about 598B.C. He died of natural causes in Jerusalem. But, Nebuchadnezzar did loot the temple of much of its treasure, fulfilling the prophecy made to Hezekiah a century earlier. Zedekiah was Jehoiakim’s brother and Nebuchadnezzar made him king next. That means three of Josiah’s four sons ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah. Zedekiah also rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and like his brother and nephew before him, invited swift Babylonian retribution. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem after a two year siege.
2 Chronicles ends with two important events in Israel’s history. First we see that the Lord sent warnings by messengers, that is prophets, to warn His people to return to Him. But His people ignored and abused the prophets . They mocked the prophets, scoffed at their words and it was clear to the Lord the people did not want to return to Him. So the Lord used the Babylonians as a disciplining rod against His people. Nebuchadnezzar took all the valuable items from Jerusalem, the palace and temple, to Babylon with him. He took the people of Jerusalem and Judah as well. They burned the temple and broke down the city walls. The other event recorded here comes after Cyrus, king of Persia defeated the Babylonians. This occurred in Cyrus’s twelfth year of rule. Cyrus was not only a mighty monarch but he was the instrument God used to deliver His people from exile. He returned them to their land and rebuilt the temple. The next phase of the Jews history follows as we begin out reading of the a book of Ezra.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
As you have been reading have you wondered how God’s people can seem to be so blind? Whether they were kings or ordinary folks they all seemed to miss the simple fact that when they were obedient to the commands of the Lord, things went pretty well for them. The Lord fought for them against their enemies, the land prospered, often there was peace, they worshiped in the temple of the Lord, and overall life was pretty darn good. When the Assyrians came knocking on Judah’s door, Hezekiah sought the Lord. And the Lord promised He would keep the Assyrians out of Jerusalem. Because the king turned to Him, God was faithful to His people. And 185,000 Assyrians were killed. But we have seen that as the king goes, so go the people. There was king Jehoshaphat who tried to get a truce going with the northern kingdom. In meeting with king Ahab of the north Jehoshaphat sought to inquire of the Lord before they went into battle. The prophet of the Lord did not have good news but that didn’t stop king Ahab from fighting anyway. He was mortally wounded and king Jehoshaphat went back to the southern kingdom. He was chastised for uniting with the northern kingdom in battle but he redeemed himself by beginning a religious revival. He also turned to the Lord when enemies were about to attack the southern kingdom. And as with Hezekiah, God delivered His people from their enemies. Jotham was also a good king but we know little about him other than he walked in the ways of his father Uzziah. Lastly there is King Josiah. He was eight when he took the throne but he quickly became a royal powerhouse. He walked like David did. He destroyed all the idols in Judah. He continued with the Passover celebrations that his father Uzziah started and he discovered the book of the laws of Moses. That only fueled his desire to help all of Judah return to the Lord in worship. In the end he ignored a couple of warnings from the Lord and he was killed in battle. All in all he did pretty well. Twenty kings and five of them were righteous. These five have one thing in common that the other fifteen did not have and that is a relationship with the Lord. They had a desire to worship Him and give Him thanks and praise for who God is and what God has done. Each of them restored His house, celebrated the holy days and revered the law He gave to Moses. They were rich and powerful as well but much of that came because God blessed their faithfulness.
Many of you have commented about all the killing. Not only did the armies of the northern and southern kingdoms kill thousands of their enemies but they killed each other. There were civil wars between the north and the south. There were young men who became king who killed off the rest of their families so they would have no competition for the throne. Sometimes it was the sons who killed their fathers and once it was the grandmother who did the killing. It seems like killing was a way of life then and there was very little trust among people and within families. Part of the killing game was the ultimate embarrassment and humiliation of those you defeated. Whether it was cutting off beards and clothes or beheading rulers and hanging their bodies on the city walls as trophies the more humiliation you could heap on the losers, the better.
Going hand in hand with the killing was God’s promise to always have someone from David’s line on the throne. In spite of the people’s unfaithfulness, God remained faithful. That is not only who God is but also what He does. God is God…holy, set apart, sovereign, faithful. He executed judgement on His people when they were disobedient but there was always a remnant of the faithful left. When we look at Joash, the son of Ahaziah, grandson of Athaliah, he was a remnant. After his father was killed and his grandmother killed off the rest of his family, Joash was the ONLY member of the royal line of David left. That makes for a very small remnant. But God was faithful and kept His promise.
Another thing you may have noticed is that it wasn’t just the kings who didn’t seem to get it that if they were obedient to the Lord things went much better. The people really were like sheep without a good and competent shepherd. Often in scripture God’s people are referred to as sheep. Jesus often referred to his followers as sheep. And He called Himself the Good Shepherd. But here’s the thing. Sheep are some of the dumbest animals around. You cannot drive sheep because they will scatter all over the place, running every which way. Sheep have to be led. If the shepherd is good, the sheep will be led to green pastures and still waters. The water has to be still and not running because running water spooks the sheep. But if the shepherd is bad and doesn’t care about his sheep, they will be led into many different places that are not good for them. The kings or shepherds in the northern kingdom were all bad shepherds and they led their sheep astray, far from the good things of the Lord. And as I wrote earlier most of the kings of the southern kingdom were just the same. Today when we think about sheep and shepherds you and I are called to look like sheep from the front and shepherds from the back. That means we are to follow someone who is a shepherd to us but we are also supposed to be a shepherd for someone else.
From Genesis 3:15 on we have seen the promise of one who will come to rescue His people. The covenant God made with King David was that there would be someone on his throne forever. We know this to be our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is good news for us and so many others. But we don’t look much different than the folks of Hezekiah’s day sometimes. We stray too. We are disobedient and we sin. Sometimes we are easily led astray because we follow the wrong person. But Old Testament or New, God is faithful. He is the only God ever to pursue His people when they stray or get lost. He wanted a relationship with His people then just as He does today. He made the same promise to His people 3,000 years ago as He has made to us…I will never leave you or forsake you. That is a promise we hang onto, sometimes because it seems that is all we have. And when that happens, it is enough.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Hezekiah the son of Ahaz began to reign when Ahaz died. Hezekiah did what was right in the Lord’s eyes AND he walked in the ways of his father King David. He is the only king of Judah who was as faithful to the Lord as David had been. The first year of his independent rule was 715 B.C. but he had been a co-regent with his father beginning in 729 B.C. Hezekiah did not waste any time showing his zeal for the Lord. In the first month of his reign, he began the work of restoring the temple of the Lord. Hezekiah’s opening the doors of the temple his father had shut was a sign of opening the temple and the nation to spiritual renewal. Ahaz had closed the temple doors as a sign of his hostility towards God. And Hezekiah wasted no time in dealing with the sins of his predecessor. He gathered the priests and Levites and commanded them to consecrate themselves so they were fit to serve in the temple. Hezekiah knew Judah was in the trouble they were, because of his father’s disobedience to the Lord. Once they were cleansed Hezekiah ordered the priests to cleanse and consecrate the temple. The Hebrew word cleanse here means ‘to make free from blemish’ and it is almost always used in a ritual or spiritual sense. Nearly half the occurrences of this word on the Old Testament occur in the Book of Leviticus where ritual cleansing is related to sanctification and is opposed to the moral filthiness of the Israelites. Both people and objects used in the temple needed to be cleansed because the Lord is a Holy God. The ritual cleansing of the people was a symbol of internal purity. We will see both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophecy about the future cleansing of the people from their sins so they could truly be God’s people both inside and outside. The idea of cleansing carries through to the New Testament. In the Book of Revelation, we see the Lamb’s bride…the church…in clean linen which symbolizes the righteous acts of believers.
Hezekiah was acting at the Lord’s direction and as one who believed in the Lord, Hezekiah was gladdened to do these tasks. Part of the cleansing was to go into every part of the temple, including the Holy of Holies to remove all the debris caused by idol worship and other detestable practices. They began their work in the Holy of Holies and worked their way out to the courtyard. Once the temple was cleansed and made ready for proper worship Hezekiah gathered the leaders of the city and together, they went to the house of the Lord. They went to make sin offerings…for the kingdom, for the sanctuary, and for Judah. We see a picture of worship as we have seen it before with the animals killed and their blood drained out. Blood was sprinkled on the altar, just as was commanded by the Lord. And finally, the priests took the goats for the sin offerings and Hezekiah and the leaders put their hands on the goat’s head, transferring the sins of the people to the goat. Instead of setting the goat free in the wilderness the goats were killed and offered up as a sacrifice to the Lord. Seven of each animal were offered because seven represented the wholeness of their repentance.
We read of both the kingdom and of Judah. The kingdom here refers to the nation as a political entity and Judah to the people. And the fact that Hezekiah’s offerings were intended for all Israel suggests that Hezekiah meant to include all twelve tribes, even the northern kingdom. Hezekiah brought out the instruments of King David, those deemed appropriate for temple worship. They worshiped using the psalms of David and Asaph, found today in our Book of Psalms. The people of Judah used these for community worship and private meditation. The people brought offerings to the Lord and they piled up in the temple. Storerooms were built so that the gifts had a place to be kept until they were used.
Under Ahaz the priests and Levites had been stripped of their duties and now, 20 years later, there were not enough priests. Hezekiah had to reconsecrate older priests and commission new ones. His reforms took place so quickly that the priests received a special dispensation to assign Levites to areas of ministry which would normally have been off limits to them…things like skinning animals for sacrifice. It was nearly two centuries prior to Hezekiah’s reign that the kingdom of Israel had split into two kingdoms. But Hezekiah had not lost sight that God’s covenant was made with all twelve tribes and that His promises included all of them.
Next on Hezekiah’s list was the celebration of the Passover. The observance of the Passover is tied to the deliverance of God’s people from the plague on the Egyptians firstborn and the Israelites subsequent exodus from Egypt. The feast was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the first month and it was combined with the feast of unleavened bread. In Numbers 9:11 we read there was an alternate date a month later for anyone who had been unclean or otherwise unavailable to celebrate the Passover on the primary date. The celebration of Passover is recorded only a few times in the Bible: in the days of Moses, Joshua, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Zerubbabel. This does not mean the feast was not celebrated at other times although the commemoration does seem to have been neglected during periods of apathy and apostasy. All the people had not had time to gather together at Jerusalem, so they delayed the celebration until the second month. But the fact that all Israel was included reveals that there were still many followers of God left in the northern kingdom despite more than 200 years of backsliding and idol worship. Hezekiah pleaded with the remnant that was left behind to repent, but the people chose not to. Judah was much more receptive because God had put His hand on Judah. God’s grace is always a part of a person’s efforts to please Him. The Passover was celebrated with great joy. There was the remembering but also worship and music. It was a joyous time for God’s people.
The long interruption of Judah’s official worship in the time of Ahab brought chaos to their religious life. They abandoned the system of priestly and Levitical division like David had set up. Now Hezekiah was reorganizing it. The law of the Lord clearly stated that the people were to bring tithes and offerings to the Lord to support the work of the temple. Numbers 18:8-24. There were to be three tithes, two every year and one every third year. The chief priest was a descendant of Zadok, and they had been since the reign of Solomon. We see the results of Ahaz’s disregard for worship. The majority of the priests lived outside of Jerusalem, so their allotments were taken to them. Hezekiah did what was good and right before the Lord. God saw all he was doing, and He was pleased. He sought God with all his heart and because of this Hezekiah prospered.
We read in 2 Kings 18:13-17 the Assyrian king Sennacherib came and entered Judah with the intent of taking control of Jerusalem and Judah. Hezekiah had been warned of his coming and took great pains to fortify and secure Jerusalem. Walls were built and the water supply was protected. When Sennacherib arrived, he came uttering threats and insults against the Lord. He was quite sure that since no other god had been able to withstand the Assyrian army the God of Judah couldn’t either. Sennacherib wrote letters to Hezekiah mostly because he wanted to avoid a long and costly siege. We have not seen it here but by this point the prophet Isaiah had been involved in the public ministry to the kings of Judah for nearly 40 years. He had considerable prestige and was especially important as a counselor to young Hezekiah. We have read the account. Hezekiah went to the temple of the Lord and prayed, and the Lord delivered Judah and Jerusalem out of Sennacherib’s hand. We have also read about Hezekiah’s sickness and God’s miraculous healing. But even Hezekiah fell to pride. He received a delegation from Babylon and in his pride, Hezekiah showed the Babylonians everything he had. God’s wrath was looming, and the prophet revealed to Hezekiah that there would come a time in the not-too-distant future where the wealth he had shown to the Babylonians would be seized by those very people and it would be taken to their distant land. When Hezekiah died, he was buried in the tombs with the godly ancestors of King David. There were other kings entombed in the city of David but not in the same area. That Hezekiah was honored meant there would be public rites and ceremonies such as public lamentation and ritual fires. Life had been rich and full under the reign of Hezekiah, but his son Manasseh was about to begin his rule, and everything would change again.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W