Archive for August, 2011


God Works Through Artaxerxes

Though many of the people of Judah are still in bondage to the king of Persia, and have been removed from their land, God finds a way to get them back to their homes.  In an amazing passage, we read:

Artaxerxes, king of kings,

To Ezra the priest, a teacher of the Law of the God of heaven:


Now I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who wish to go to Jerusalem with you, may go.  You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand.  Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, together with all the silver and gold you may obtain from the province of Babylon, as well as the freewill offerings of the people and priests for the temple of their God in Jerusalem.  With this money be sure to buy bulls, rams and male lambs, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and sacrifice them on the altar of the temple of your God in Jerusalem.

You and your brother Jews may then do whatever seems best with the rest of the silver and gold, in accordance with the will of your God.  — Ezra 7:12-18

And so, a second wave of the captive people is sent back to their homeland by the Persian king.  How can it be that the king of Persia would simply release the people, allow them to rebuild the temple, and help pay for the effort?  I believe we see the answer later in the chapter.  At the end of King Artaxerxes’ letter, we see him write these words:

Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.   — Ezra 7:27-28

God’s spirit rested even on a non-Israelite king, and the Lord saw fit to bless him in the presence of onlookers.  To me, this looks like a pre-cursor to salvation eventually being extended to all people, not just to the chosen Israelites.


Those Opposed To The Lord Try To Deceive

Now that the men of Judah have rebuilt the temple, it is time for them to begin using it again.

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem.  Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God.  Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices.  — Ezra 3:1-3

“Despite their fear”?  Why were the surrounding nations worried about the rebuilding of the altar and its use?  Do they feel threatened because they remember the great success that the people of Judah had in battle when their God was with them?

It must have been a very big deal for the surrounding peoples – notice how much effort they went to in order to discourage the Israelite people from their rebuilding efforts.

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.  They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.  — Ezra 4:1-4

In my thinking, that was a lot of effort to expend in order to keep the people from worshiping the Lord.  Surely God’s blessing and power was evident to all when His people dedicated themselves to His service!


A Persian King Follows The Lord

As predicted by the prophet Jeremiah, the captivity of God’s people would only last for 70 years.  Recall that it was the people of Judah who were under the Persian captivity, not those who were part of the divided nation of Israel.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:

“‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.  Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.  And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”  — Ezra 1:1-4

History shows that Cyrus was losing his grip on the territories that his predecessors had gained.  In most cases such as this, a leader would take the opportunity to strengthen and consolidate his power.  But it did not happen in this case.  Isn’t it strange how Cyrus, a non-Israelite king, was moved by the same God as that of the Israelites?  How strange that a king holding people in captivity would volunteer to send those captives to build a temple to honor their God!  Was Cyrus a true follower of God?  He seems to know the Lord, as evidenced by his words.  And another of the prophetic predictions comes to pass.


The Age of Accountability

A question often arises when teaching our children about the Lord and preparing them to accept Him as Lord – how old must a child be before they are of the “age of accountability”?  That is, at what age is a child really old enough to fully understand the Lord’s plan and His grace?

First, we should strike the word “fully” from that question.  The fact is, we will never “fully” understand God’s plan, as evidenced in Romans 11:33-34.  So, when can a child begin to understand?

We see some clues in today’s passage, regarding young king Josiah, who will do great things for the Lord in his lifetime.

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem thirty-one years.  He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.   In the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David. In his twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of high places, Asherah poles, carved idols and cast images.  — 2 Chronicles 34:1-3

It’s fair to say after reading this that Josiah began to understand God’s will and purpose at age sixteen.  And he began taking firm action at age twenty.  Perhaps this gives us an idea of this mysterious “age of accountability”.  That age number is not magical, nor is it universal.  It will depend greatly on the environment and teaching that is given to a child in an effort to help him or her understand the beginnings of a relationship with the Lord.  Many children come to the Lord before age sixteen, and I believe, rightly so.  But I think we should be cautious about very young ages – a very young child may grasp the principle of being forgiven and the sweetness of knowing Jesus – but they also need to understand other elements of the gospel, such as brokenness and repentance.


One Final Repentant King

As a final installment regarding the chronicles of the kings of Judah, here is another story of an evil king who repented, and received God’s blessing.

“Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years.  He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites… The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention.  So the LORD brought against them the army commanders of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon.  In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.  And when he prayed to him, the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD is God.”  — 2 Chronicles 33:1, 2, 10-13

There is a lot to note in this brief passage.  The Bible does not tell us how Manasseh was suddenly released by the king of Assyria and restored to his people…but it happened.  Such a restoration seems impossible, and there is no mention of specifics, but where God and His people are concerned, mighty things can happen.

Just a reminder – we are now reading about the kings of Judah and the nation of Judah only, because the nation of Israel was taken into Babylonian captivity a few years earlier.  There is no nation of Israel living in the land at this time – only the surviving nation of Judah (and, unfortunately, they are not going to last very much longer).


Back and Forth

We have been reading about Hezekiah, king of Judah, and how faithful he was in restoring the people to God.  He was bold and brave about this effort.  But like so many kings of this time, there are times in his life where he stumbled before God.  We see some of this “back and forth” in today’s passage.

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. He prayed to the LORD, who answered him and gave him a miraculous sign.  But Hezekiah’s heart was proud and he did not respond to the kindness shown him; therefore the LORD’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem.  Then Hezekiah repented of the pride of his heart, as did the people of Jerusalem; therefore the LORD’s wrath did not come upon them during the days of Hezekiah.

Hezekiah had very great riches and honor, and he made treasuries for his silver and gold and for his precious stones, spices, shields and all kinds of valuables.  He also made buildings to store the harvest of grain, new wine and oil; and he made stalls for various kinds of cattle, and pens for the flocks.  He built villages and acquired great numbers of flocks and herds, for God had given him very great riches.

It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David. He succeeded in everything he undertook.  But when envoys were sent by the rulers of Babylon to ask him about the miraculous sign that had occurred in the land, God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.  — 2 Chronicles 32:24-31

God’s wrath and blessing are alternately poured out on Hezekiah, depending on his humility before the Lord.  And it is interesting to note in the end that we see God’s testing of Hezekiah – we do not know the state of his heart at this time.  But the story of Job in a later book shows us that God can test us, even when we are faithful (or when we are not), to see if we will simply humble ourselves before him, regardless of our circumstances.

I am amazed at the common theme that occurs repetitively with the good kings of Judah – though they start out as blessed by God because of their devotion, so many of them are tempted and led astray in their later years (even Solomon fell victim to this).  My impression has always been that age begets wisdom and a closer walk with God.  These Old Testament stories serve as a witness that this is not always true.  We should be on our guard to remember the Lord – in our youth and in our old age.


The Difference Between Priests and Levites

Let me share something I learned from today’s reading.  Do you spot something confusing in the following passage?

Hezekiah assigned the priests and Levites to divisions—each of them according to their duties as priests or Levites—to offer burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, to minister, to give thanks and to sing praises at the gates of the LORD’s dwelling.  — 2 Chronicles 31:2

What confused me was the separate mention of priests and Levites.  In fact, this separation appears many times in the passages surrounding this reference.  Aren’t the Levites the same as the priests?

In fact, they are not (or at least, not necessarily).  In Numbers 8:19, we read:

“And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to do the work for the children of Israel in the tabernacle of meeting, and to make atonement for the children of Israel, that there be no plague among the children of Israel when the children of Israel come near the sanctuary.”

Aaron was a priest, and all priests descended from him.  All priests are Levites.  Yet not all Levites are priests – the Levites also exist to serve the men of the priesthood.  I found a good article on this fact here, and I quote from it with this:

What causes the confusion is that Aaron also descended from Levi. Since all priests descend from Aaron, all priests are Levites. Yet all Levites are not priests, but they do serve the priests. Hence, you find mention of the priests and the Levites together, such as “And he gathered together all the leaders of Israel, with the priests and the Levites (1 Chronicles 23:2). This is also why the Hebrew writer speaks of the Levitical priesthood — all priests came from a subset of the tribe of Levi. Therefore, if perfection were through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be called according to the order of Aaron? (Hebrews 7:11).

I just thought others might like to know this.  It certainly cleared up some confusion for me.

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