God’s Grace in Ezra & Esther

Ezra is one of the most beautiful books I’ve studied so far because it reveals God’s grace strengthening His people when they most needed it!

According to the command given through the prophet Jeremiah, God’s people were to make themselves comfortable in the foreign land where they were exiled:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

Jeremiah 29:5,6

Then in 538 BC, after Persia had conquered Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree, which released the Jews to go home and build the temple:

Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.

2 Chronicles 26:23

Then the Book of Ezra picks up where the story leaves off in 2 Chronicles.

Just a fun fact, the Book of Ezra is the first time I’ve seen the term “Jews” used. I’m not sure if it was around this time that God’s people were referred to by this nickname, but it comes from “Judah,” their hometown.

So after 70 years captivity, the Jews get the permission to return to Jerusalem. But they had just made themselves comfortable in a foreign land that was several hundred miles away from Jerusalem. Can you imagine packing up your life and walking for hundreds of miles from a home you might have grown up in to “start over” in a land of ruins?  Jerusalem was completely destroyed. This would take a lot of faith – that to rebuild and restore was the better choice than to stay comfortable at home.

God knew that this would be hard for them, so He strengthened them and led them by His Spirit so that they would take courage and choose to begin the hard work of rebuilding:

The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.

Ezra 1:5

…the journey up from Babylon was begun…for the gracious hand of his God was upon him [Ezra]…

Ezra 7:9

God gave them everything they needed to accomplish their mission:

All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem

Ezra 1:6,7

Because the Jews decided to obey God and rely on His strength, the foundation of the temple was laid and there was great joy:

and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

For he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.

Ezra 3:11

Then, the foreigners of the land had wanted to join in on their worship, but because the returnees were commanded to keep separate, they had to put their foot down so as not to mix pagan religion in pure worship of God:

But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.’

Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan…

Ezra 4:3-5

So although their obedience to God resulted in joy, it also came with great resistance and at times, disappointment. But they continued to listen to God, who ended up giving them the encouragement needed to keep going.

This was such a good lesson for me because whenever I decide to follow God in a particular area of my life, and things get hard, or when I’m afraid, or when I meet resistance along the way, it’s easy for me to make that a reason to compromise or not follow through.

But that’s why He’s given me His grace to rely on, just like He gave grace to the returnees. If I want to live the best life possible, it will always require that I rely on His grace. If the Jews wanted to see restoration, they were going to have to take courage and trust that God would give them everything they needed to rebuild and restore.

We also studied the Book of Esther this week. Although the text never mentions the name of God, His hand and sovereignty is clearly behind the events of the story. Miraculously, extreme favor is shown to Esther through the heathen King Xerxes of Persia, which leads to the total protection of God’s people still living in Persia (some Jews chose not to return to Jerusalem).

God seemed to be guiding Esther through her cousin Mordecai, who encouraged her to step up to King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) to prevent the destruction of their people:

For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

Esther 4:14

But Esther did face some cultural boundaries that, if followed, would have prevented her from ever approaching the king to influence him:

All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.

Esther 4:11

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Dressing up to get in the spirit of studying the Book of Esther.

But God works above the cultural rules! He doesn’t need to follow the boundaries of society in order for His will to be accomplished, nor does he require anyone to honor these boundaries. Although He does ask for submission and respect for authority, if anything goes against His word, then His people were to obey His voice instead of the law, and He would do the rest.

Esther took courage in God and decided to face King Ahasuerus:

…I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish…

Esther 4:16

And though she broke the rules of society, God granted her favor:

The king said to her, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Esther 5:3

King Ahasuerus says this same line four times in the story! This emphasizes just how much favor Esther had. God was determined to show His people that He was still with them, though they decided not return, because He wanted to glorify Himself among the Persians, too.

And as a result of the miraculous favor Esther received, not only did the Jews defeat their enemies, but God was revered among the foreigners:

…many of the peoples of the country professed to be Jews, because the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.

Esther 8:17

Esther showed me that there really is no excuse not to follow God’s voice. Though obedience might be hard and at times really scary, God will always supply the strength and favor needed to see us through. And the best part is the testimony that comes as a result of obedience, not just the accomplishment of the actual task!

Esther Week 1
I LOVE my CSBS!

1&2 Chronicles: Taking Courage

2 Chronicles is another one of those books I have never read before and it’s definitely up there as one of my favorites, along with 1&2 Samuel. It focuses on worship and urges the reader to follow after God wholeheartedly.

Although some of the stories seem like a repeat of 1&2 Kings, there are actually major differences in the stories that the author adds to point toward the benefit of being fully devoted to God and His ways for worship. 

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At the Getty Museum. For the first time in my life, I actually appreciated the artwork.

This book was most likely written for the returnees from captivity in Babylon, so 1 Chronicles mainly talks about the genealogies and priestly assignments to reaffirm their identity as God’s people. God had stuck by their side all the way up to their return from exile and wasn’t planning on leaving them now. Plus, He still expected them to follow His ways, especially His regulations for worship that David had set up before his Solomon built the temple.

The descendants of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi, were the ones expected to perform all the temple services. They acted as accountability for the king, pointed toward the holiness of God, made atonement for the Israelites, led them in worship, and a whole list of other duties revolving worship.

Therefore the author of Chronicles (who may have been Ezra) wanted the returnees and the priests to take worship seriously, according to God’s ways:

 

Josiah kept a passover…He appointed the priests to their offices and encouraged them in the service of the house of the Lord. He said to the Levites who taught all Israel and who were holy to the Lord, “Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon son of David, king of Israel, built…Now serve the Lord your God and his people Israel…Slaughter the passover lamb, sanctify yourselves, and on behalf of your kindred make preparations, acting according to the word of the Lord by Moses.”

2 Chronicles 35:1-6

Something amazing that I noticed in 2 Chronicles was Ezra’s emphasis on seeking God with courage, with a whole heart:

Moreover in Jerusalem Jehoshaphat appointed certain Levites and priests…to give judgment for the Lord and to decide disputed cases…He charged them: “This is how you shall act: in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart

2 Chronicles 19:8-9

 

But in the seventh year Jehoiada took courage…went around through Judah and gathered the Levites from all the towns of Judah, and the heads of families of Israel, and they came to Jerusalem.

2 Chronicles 23:2

 

Amaziah took courage, and led out his people; he went to the Valley of Salt, and struck down ten thousand men of Seir…

2 Chronicles 25:11

 

Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him…

2 Chronicles 32:7

According to the Hebrew Lexicon, “courage” or “courageous” means: to be determined, to make oneself alert, strengthen oneself, confirm oneself, persist in, prove superior to, to strengthen, secure (for oneself), harden (heart), make firm, make obstinate, assure

If the kings and priests of Israel didn’t act with courage, then they would have been sure to compromise in some area, which would have stopped them from reaching their full potential as an individual and for their people. Instead, as leaders of the nation of Judah, the kings and priests needed to ‘harden their hearts’ for God and His ways alone so that nothing could make them back down from doing all that God wanted them to do.

Although no king was perfect in the period of Judah, each one disobeying God in at least one area of their life, whenever they acted boldly for God and were determined to carry out His will, great success came as a result.

King Hezekiah’s life gives one of the greatest examples of what happens when someone decides to go against the cultural norm and follow God wholeheartedly:

For a multitude of the people…had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” The Lord heard Hezekiah, and healed the people. The people of Israel who were present at Jerusalem kept the festival of unleavened bread seven days with great gladness; and the Levites and the priests praised the Lord day by day, accompanied by loud instruments for the Lord. Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to all the Levites who showed good skill in the service of the Lord…The whole assembly of Judah, the priests and the Levites, and the whole assembly that came out of Israel, and the resident aliens who came out of the land of Israel, and the resident aliens who lived in Judah, rejoiced.  There was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. Then the priests and the Levites stood up and blessed the people, and their voice was heard; their prayer came to his holy dwelling in heaven.

2 Chronicles 30:18-27

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My beautiful friend and I overlooking the lights in the valley

What a beautiful picture showing what it looks like when God’s people work together with fully devoted hearts! The entire nation, including the foreigners who came to the Lord and the exiles from the northern kingdom, came together to celebrate the Lord for the Passover. God healed them of their uncleanness.They weren’t perfect, but because they set their hearts fully on the Lord, that’s all that mattered to Him.  It was a time of great rejoicing and gladness that was unheard of since the time of King David!

Hezekiah’s time as king wasn’t free from trial and persecution. His faithfulness and wholeheartedness to God was tested. Even though Hezekiah could have easily given up trusting in God because of how hard his situation was, he was faithful to Him:

After these things and these acts of faithfulness, King Sennacherib of Assyria came and invaded Judah and encamped against the fortified cities, thinking to win them for himself.

 

He (Hezekiah) appointed combat commanders over the people, and gathered them together to him in the square at the gate of the city and spoke encouragingly to them, saying, “Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” The people were encouraged by the words of King Hezekiah of Judah.

2 Chronicles 32:1,6

The Assyrians, who were greatly feared and known for their vicious war tactics (and who had also taken the northern kingdom of Israel into exile at this point) were pressing up hard against King Hezekiah. The nation was in great distress, but King Hezekiah’s faith in God helped them. In the end, God delivered them because of their unwillingness to lose hope in God:

Then King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz prayed because of this and cried to heaven. And the Lord sent an angel who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. 

2 Chronicles 32:20,21

King Hezekiah didn’t lose one of his men in this battle for He trusted God to fight the battle for them, which led to the best possible outcome. 

This story was so encouraging for me because although my enemy isn’t against a physical army, I do have to fight off temptation and fear each day so that I come closer to living in the fullness of God, which is my greatest desire in life.

Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it gets any easier and I’m tempted to trust in something else other than God to boost my mood and calm my restlessness. But I’m coming to accept the fact that if I really want to live the life Christ died to give me, then perseverance and faith in God is my only option – not a change in circumstances, whether in the big or small.

This is courage – doing what is challenging with a conviction that it is God’s will. And I’m learning that living up to my fullest potential will always require relying on His strength and not my own. His grace truly is sufficient and His reward is great!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1,2

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:11

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. …for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:11,13

 

Daniel & Obadiah – Trusting God and Resisting Bitterness

The thing I loved the most about Daniel and his friends was their love for God. They were in exile in a foreign land and were made to serve their enemies in the royal courts. They were forced to learn the Babylonian culture for three years.

But instead of rebelling against their circumstances and becoming bitter and angry, their attitudes remained positive. Their actions throughout life reflected a deep love for and devotion to God even though they could have easily complained about their situation. They loved Him for who He was and not for what they thought they deserved in life. They knew He was still sovereign and was with them and in control:

But Daniel resolved the he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.

Daniel 1:8

If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.

Daniel 3:17,18

Obviously if Daniel and his friends weren’t completely in love with God, they would have let their circumstances get the best of them and would have been unfaithful to God. But their love and faith in God prevailed over fear. As a result, God continued to bless their faithfulness to Him as they thrived in the hardest of circumstances:

Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom…

Daniel 6:3

Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.

Daniel 3:30

Another thing that grabbed me was Daniel’s humility. He was blessed, like Solomon, with all sorts of wisdom and knowledge. But Daniel always recognized that none of his talent was earned, that it was all freely given to him by God:

Blessed be the name of God from age to age,
for wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons,
deposes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and light dwells with him.
To you, O God of my ancestors,
I give thanks and praise,
for you have given me wisdom and power…

Daniel 2:20-23

His humility was marked by fear of the Lord. No matter how smart Daniel was, even he couldn’t stand up in His presence without God’s help:

 How can my lord’s servant talk with my lord? For I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.”

Again one in human form touched me and strengthened me.  He said, “Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!” When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.

Daniel 10:17-19

There is no room for pride for mankind! Everything, including our very life and strength, is given to us by God. Developing a healthy fear of God is so freeing and sweet because fear of the Lord is in our God-given design!

We also learned some interpretations of the visions given to Daniel in the

Our class!
Our class!

second part of the book. I myself am still unsure, but I do tend to like the interpretations that say all of the prophecies given to Daniel have already been fulfilled (with God’s kingdom coming at the first coming of Christ, though obviously not all the way established until His second coming).

I don’t think any one interpretation makes perfect sense, but keeping in mind that this book was written for the Israelites back then, it makes more sense in my head that God wouldn’t be revealing the end times and the second coming of Jesus if Jesus hadn’t already come yet.

Then we studied the Book of Obadiah which I had never read before. Basically, God is telling the nation of Edom that they will be judged.

Edom was the nation that came from Esau, the brother of Jacob, to whom he had sold his birthright back in Genesis 25:34. Ezekiel 35:5 shows that Edom never really got over the fact that Jacob “stole” the blessing from them:

Because you cherished an ancient enmity, and gave over the people of Israel to the power of the sword at the time of their calamity, at the time of their final punishment…

Edom had “cherished an ancient enmity” against Judah. “Enmity” means “the state of being actively opposed or hostile toward someone or something.” Basically, they held a long-time grudge. Because of their unwillingness to let go of their bitterness, they literally reveled in the evil done to Judah when the Babylonians destroyed their city. For this, God was judging them:

On the day that you stood aside,
on the day that strangers carried off his wealth,
and foreigners entered his gates
and cast lots for Jerusalem,
you too were like one of them.
But you should not have gloated over your brother
on the day of his misfortune;
you should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah
on the day of their ruin;
you should not have boasted
on the day of distress.
You should not have entered the gate of my people
on the day of their calamity;
you should not have joined in the gloating over Judah’s disaster
on the day of his calamity;

Obadiah 1:11-13

Although God had given the inheritance to Jacob, God still had a heart for Edom like He does for all nations and peoples, but Edom rejected God by holding on to their bitterness. They “gloated” over their brother’s downfall and stood aside as it happened. For that reason, God decided to judge them.

This shows God’s heart for how He wants us to treat one another. Sometimes jealousy and bitterness can get in the way, but if we ask God to change us, He can renew our minds so that we  truly love good and mourn with those who mourn!

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Romans 12:9,14-15

Rainbows and Splendor – Ezekiel

Ezekiel might be one of the hardest prophets to study because it is highly interpreted and debated. For instance, in Ezekiel 40, God gives Ezekiel a very detailed vision of a new temple (the temple in Jerusalem had just been destroyed by the Babylonians). But this temple he saw wasn’t ever rebuilt according to the details of the vision. So is it yet to be fulfilled, or is there even a need for a physical temple anyway since the body of Christ is God’s temple, according to Revelation 21:22?  For me it doesn’t matter too much, but I would still like to come to an informed decision about it eventually.

To start off the book, God gives Ezekiel this amazing vision of His glory.

We learned about one possible and very interesting interpretation for this vision:

As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures.

This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces…As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle…Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies…Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went…

In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire…the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire…

Ezekiel 1:4-13

The creatures with the four faces could be interpreted as God’s servants with each of the creatures representing the strongest of their kind (man, eagle, ox and lion). Perhaps this can mean that the strongest are those who come under God to do His will and not the ones who do life without the fear of God.

The fire in the center could represent God’s holiness that the creatures were guarding. It would have made since to the original readers since inside the temple before it was destroyed, God’s presence was in the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies, which was protected (even though truthfully God was/is everywhere). There were also cherubim on the veil that separated this room from the rest of the temple, which directly parallels the creatures protecting God’s holiness.

It would have also reminded the original readers of the cherubim that God placed in the Garden of Eden to protect the holy from the unholy. Therefore using creatures to protect His holiness would have made sense to them and would have reminded them of their original purpose.

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them…Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels…

Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome…And there came a voice from above the dome over their heads; when they stopped, they let down their wings…And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne…seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form…Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

Ezekiel 1:4-28 

The wheels that moved with the creatures could represent the unification of the creatures under God’s will. They never turned aside from their path (this was repeated twice in the vision, perhaps to emphasize the point of their dedication to God’s will). This was what God’s chosen people were to do – serve Him and His will without veering off the path. They also weren’t supposed to be territorial – they were meant to point toward God’s holiness to all the nations and not hoard His blessings to themselves.

The fact that the one who sat on the throne “seemed like a human form” would have confirmed the creation account given in Genesis (that man was created in His image) assuming God was this one in “human form” sitting upon the throne.

Here’s one interpreted Google image of Ezekiel’s vision:

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Although this is obviously just an interpretation, to me, it seems fair. From Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory, a certain worldview emerges:

  • All creation is under God
  • All creation was meant to serve God
  • God is purposeful in all that He does (the wheels and the creatures were determined to fulfill their task)
  • God is directly involved in His creation’s lives (He was above the creatures but directed their steps

Through studying the prophets, God keeps highlighting this idea of servant hood, and how serving Him no matter where doing no matter what is my highest calling. Where and what that looks like after CSBS is yet to be determined 🙂

Aside from the cool vision of God’s glory that I loved was the theme throughout His promises for restoration. He was going to restore them as a people by giving them His spirit. They had proved unable to do His will and believe the truth without His very spirit in them. So He promised them, if they turned to God, then that one act alone would mean the forgiveness of all their sins:

But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die. None of the transgressions that they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live.

Ezekiel 18:21,22

Reading this out of context you would think that God counts someone as “righteous” just by their good deeds, but later He reveals that the righteousness was actually just trusting God:

Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die…Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.

Ezekiel 18:28,31-32

All they had to do was repent and they would receive a new heart and spirit. That’s it. God would do the rest for them since He knew they were unable to do it for themselves. The only thing they were responsible for was to decide to trust God with their lives, but they didn’t have to try on their own to become righteous because that simply didn’t work. In fact, God warned against trusting their own righteousness:

Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.

Ezekiel 33:13

Even believers have a hard time trusting God even if we do trust Him for eternal life. God wants us to trust Him with everything in this life, too.

The one thing we have to do though is truly repent from whatever it is that we’re worrying about, big or small, because God will always come through with a much better solution than ours. There are some things we just can’t do and figure out on our own, and this is where trusting God and sticking it out will help us experience God the way He wants us to. But we have to truly set our minds to trusting God and not looking at the problem in order to start trusting Him more and more, because otherwise it’s just a “nice idea” that doesn’t actually work in practice.

This has definitely been the biggest breakthrough for me over the past few months. Learning, through experience, that I can trust God with every single problem, concern or desire has been so life-changing!