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Ezra & Nehemiah
Many of us recently read through Ezra and Nehemiah in the Bible Reading Challenge, and these books have a lot to say to us about the work of Reformation, which is what we are about.
“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia… Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah…” (Ezr. 1:1-2)
Summary of the Text
Ezra and Nehemiah take place after the 70 years of exile foretold in Jeremiah (Jer. 29:10), beginning around 539 B.C. While modern Bible commentators tend to date Nehemiah much later (100 years!) because he calls the king “Artaxerxes,” I’m inclined to read that as a throne name (like “Caesar” or “Pharaoh”) because Nehemiah refers to Ezra the Scribe being there with him (e.g. Neh. 8). Ezra also references Nehemiah (Ez. 2:2), which verse incidentally also mentions Mordecai, strongly suggesting that the “queen” in Neh. 2:6 is none other than Esther (making Ahasuerus, Darius, and Nehemiah’s “Artaxexes” all the same king). Regardless of how one takes the chronology, the books record the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra) and the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah), the blessing of God on their work, the challenges they faced, and provide us a number of lessons on the work of Reformation.
The goal in both books is the rebuilding of the temple and the city (Ez. 9:9, Neh. 12:27, 40), but both books make it clear that worship is central and drives the whole project. This is why we have said for years that worship is at the center of what we are about, but the reestablishment of faithful worship is always related to (re)building cities (Tit. 1:5, Rev. 21:2).
Ezra describes the reestablishment of worship in two stages: first is the altar (Ez. 3:2-6), then the rest of the temple (Ez. 3:10, 6:15). In the New Covenant, the altar roughly corresponds to evangelism and conversion (Mt. 28:19). True worship is in spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:23), which means that the only kind of worship that God receives is the kind offered with clean hearts and lips (Heb. 13:5). And the only way to have a clean heart is by the blood of Jesus Christ washing it clean (1 Jn. 1:9). The temple roughly corresponds to corporate worship (1 Pet. 2:5). When people gather together for worship, there must be an order that everyone can follow. We see in Nehemiah’s covenant renewal service many of the same elements of worship we use: there is a platform/pulpit where the Scriptures are read (Neh. 8:4), there is time for explaining what the Scriptures mean (Neh. 8:7-8), all the people stood for the reading (Neh. 8:5), the people respond with “Amen” (Neh. 8:6), and worship includes lifting hands as well as kneeling/bowing down (Neh. 8:6). Worship is ordered according to Scripture not according to our preferences.
Expect Enemies & Detractors
“Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the LORD God of Israel; then they… weakened the hands of the people of Judah and troubled them in the building, and hired counsellors against them to frustrate their purpose…” (Ezr. 4:1, 4-5). There is also a progression of resistance in Nehemiah: from grief (Neh. 2:10), to scorn (Neh. 2:19), to indignation and threats of violence (Neh. 4:1, 8). They not only sought to work political trouble, but they also successfully turned some prophets against the work (Neh. 6:10-14), including the corruption of the High Priest (Neh. 13:7-8). Jesus told His disciples to expect the same: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake” (Matt. 5:11). “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Lk. 6:26). Paul warned the Corinthian elders that “savage wolves will come in among you” (Acts 20:29). “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Heb. 12:3, cf. 1 Pet. 4:12). The presence of enemies is not a sign something has gone wrong; it’s a sign we’re doing something worth fighting.
Varying Degrees of Understanding
In the work of reformation there will be those who don’t fully understand what we are up to, but who are still trying to help. “And next unto them the Tekoaites repaired; but their nobles put not their necks to the work of their lord” (Neh. 3:5). This is like the time the disciples saw someone casting out demons who was not with them, and Jesus said to leave him alone: “he who is not against us is on our side” (Lk. 9:50). Likewise, Paul rejoiced that the gospel was being preached even by those who did so out of envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15-18). Others will really put their backs into the work: “After him Baruch the son of Zabbai earnestly repaired the other piece, from the turning of the wall unto the door of the house of Eliashib the high priest” (Neh. 3:20). Paul was a Johnny-come-lately, but he saw that God had allowed him to far outstrip all the other apostles in terms of work accomplished (1 Cor. 15:10). We should glory in our varying gifts, and not worry too much about the messiness of people.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah end addressing marriage problems (Ez. 9-10, Neh. 8:23-31). Marriage and family are not just one of the things that Christians do, it is right at the center of human civilization. It is always high stakes, but when you are trying to rebuild a civilization, you cannot be working off of different sets of blueprints and this relates more broadly to the problem of worldliness (Js. 4:4, 2 Cor. 6:14-18). Many people object to the idea of applying biblical law to society, and they often point to Old Testament laws that sometimes allowed for the death penalty for adultery (Lev. 20:10) or a rebellious son (Dt. 21:18-21). The problem with this objection is that it assumes the relative insignificance of the family. But marriage and family are like a civilizational nuclear plant, and God’s sanctions match that volatility.
Ezra and Nehemiah remind us that our task is to build on Christ the solid rock, the only foundation stone that can never be moved. But another way to say this is that Christ is the Chief Builder. We want to build what He is building, and nothing else. Otherwise all of our work is in vain (Ps. 127). But if the blessing of God is on it, nothing can stop it. How do we seek that blessing? Clean hearts, full of joy worshiping the Lord. That joy is only possible if we are walking in the light of forgiveness and fellowship (1 Jn. 1:4-7). And that joy is our strength (Neh. 8:10).