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The book of Ezra

The purposes of God may sometimes be delayed but they are never abandoned. God had promised through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:10-13) that the exiles would return after seventy years to Jerusalem. Ezra tells us about this return.

Nehemiah and Ezra were one book in the Hebrew Bible. The Ezra-Nehemiah- Esther period in Israel’s history is arguably the least known amongst Christians generally. It would be pertinent to set the books in their historical setting.

You have just finished reading Ezekiel and Joel and Daniel. Ezekiel and Daniel are figures around during the exile of Judah in Babylon. The story of Daniel in the Lion’s den happened about ten years before Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians. In the first year of his reign, Cyrus (spoken of by Isaiah 200 years earlier) issues an edict permitting all Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. From this point on Jews are only the people of Judah that return to Jerusalem. The people of the ten Northern tribes (Israel exiled under Assyria) never return. At Cyrus’ first call to return in 537 B.C., only 50,000 Jews return under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:1-4). Cyrus even returned the valuables that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem.

The names of the people who returned are listed in chapter 2. They set about rebuilding their lives in Jerusalem. First the altar is built, then the Temple, and last their homes, which is significant. One could almost expect that hindrances would come. Chapter 4 covers the trouble. Chapter 4 also shows that the messages of Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people in this tough time. Within four years the Temple was rebuilt (in a very plain way) and dedicated. This would have been 516 B.C. (Ezra 6).

Ezra appears in person in chapter 7. This is in 458 B.C., about sixty years since the first exiles returned. He was sent by king Artaxerxes with a contingent of 1,700 Jews. Ezra is an outstanding minister of the Word or God. His name means ‘help’ and he helps the people understand the Law of God and living under God’s Law. Tradition says that Ezra was responsible for setting up a council of 120 men who formed the Old Testament canon. The rest of the book it taken up with Ezra applying the ways of God to the people as they see and acknowledge their sin and change their ways.

After Ezra comes Nehemiah (445 B.C) to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. History stops one hundred years after the return from the exile. We then turn to secular history where Alexander the Great conquers Persia and takes Jerusalem. He shows favour to the Jews.

Pic: Cyrus returning the Temple treasures to the Jews.

The book of Daniel

Second to Revelation, Daniel stands out as the most difficult book in the Bible to understand. Well, only the second half of it. The first half is some of the easiest and most loved narrative for children’s stories and Bible studies.

Daniel is a standout statesman in Babylon. He lives to over ninety years of age maintaining a high rank under Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Darius and Cyrus. He was taken to Babylon in the first invasion by Nebuchadnezzar and was joined by Ezekiel who arrived in the second invasion eight years later. Ezekiel refers to Daniel as a model of righteousness, no small feat while spending sixty-nine years in the most vile of courts. Daniel always remained faithful to God.

The overarching theme of the book is God’s kingship and royal power. Depending on your viewpoint each chapter tells us about God and Daniel’s experiences living in pagan ruled kingdoms.

Chapter 1 – God is shown as the keeper as Daniel tells us his story of what it’s like to live under Babylonian (pagan) authority.

Chapter 2 – God is shown as the God of history as Daniel speaks about Babylon being the first of three empires to rule Jerusalem and in the time of the fourth, God would usher in a kingdom that would rule over all.

Chapter 3 – God the deliverer is seen as Daniel and his friends survive under Babylonian rule.

Chapter 4 – God is shown as all powerful as Nebuchadnezzar suddenly dies.

Chapter 5 – God is also the judge when in the space of a chapter the Babylonian kingdom falls and the Persians rule.

Chapter 6 – the God who can do anything when under Persian rule saves Daniel from the infamous den of lions.

Chapters 7-12 take up the theme of how God’s kingdom relates to the kingdoms of the world. God’s kingdom moves forward no matter what goes on around it.

Daniel tells us two certain things: (1) it is more than possible for a follower of God to stand in the midst of pagan rule and pressure, and (2) God’s kingdom reigns over all the kingdoms of the world, no matter how it looks at the time.

Pic: Daniel in the Lion’s Den by Briton Riviere (1872).

 

The book of Joel

It may come as a surprise that Joel features at this point in the chronological reading plan. Truth be told, academics only agree with the fact that they are not sure when Joel was written and therefore into what date and context he was writing. By now you would have seen how important context is to understanding Scripture, so Joel presents us with a bit of a puzzle. Date arguments focus on style and content and conclusions tilt towards a date in the post-exile period, hence we are reading it now.

Whilst we don’t know much about the actual date of the writing we do know a lot about the situation he was writing into. God’s people were in a terrible situation and Joel sees the hand of God in this and calls the nation to turn back to God wholeheartedly. A plague of locusts has come upon them and Joel sees this plague as a foretaste of the end of the world. He tells them it’s God’s intervention and warning for them. Joel’s ‘day of the Lord’ could well be any time where God intervenes in a major way to get people’s attention again.

Joel doesn’t denounce any particular sin (although he does mention drunkenness once) but the problem is general negligence and coolness on behalf of the people of God. Joel calls the people to awareness and repentance because of the time coming when the time will be finished to make things right. He views Israel being restored and the Spirit and salvation coming. He widens his message applying it to the whole world. There is a day coming for the whole world where they will account to God. But salvation will be there for them too.

Pic: Joel, by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel)

The book of Ezekiel

Ezekiel is a faithful preacher to the exiles in Babylon after Jeremiah. He was the voice of God reminding the people for twenty-two years of why calamity had come upon them and what they should do in the future. Ezekiel arrives in Babylon nine years after Daniel, who were both young men at the time. God no doubt used them to keep the people’s hope alive of God’s plan for them. God’s plan for them was a restoration to himself but they seemed unable to learn from the terrible exile and only became worse lovers of false gods (Ezekiel 5:11).

Ezekiel lived by the shipping canal called the Chebar River, probably being one of the exiles having to dig the canal for the illustrious and beautiful Babylonian infrastructure. He lived with that community of exiled Jews about 70km from Babylon city. Amongst this small and discouraged group, Ezekiel devotes the best years of his life. As a sparkling artist Ezekiel’s style of preaching is rich and varied. He uses symbols, parables, poems, proverbs and prophecies to get his message across.

The book of Ezekiel has roughly the same structure as the other large prophetic works. It begins with a series of oracles written in the situation that the prophet is in (1-24). It follows with a large section decreeing judgement on foreign nations (25-32) and concludes with prophecies of blessing related to the future (33-48). Ezekiel will, amongst many other things, show us that God is holy, gracious, in charge of everything all of the time and to Him ultimately is each person responsible.

Ezekiel’s writing is easily open to interpreter abuse by well-meaning Christians. A lot of Old Testament prophecy is often abused but Ezekiel’s rich pictures of restoration and glory and a good future for God’s people are commonly misused. Thus here is a humble reminder about basic hermeneutics. An important rule: the message is to us today what it was to them then. Once we understand what was being said ‘then and there’ we apply the same teaching about the same subject today. It can’t mean something new today as there is not a new message. The principles of the message are the same. It can be a difficult job but it’s always worth it. We need maturity and high level questioning of whether we are being faithful to the text.

Pic: Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine Chapel.

The book of Lamentations

Once, a pastor went with a few friends to a bookshop and walked out with a commentary on Lamentations. “Lamentations!” his friends chuckled. You may even have a little chuckle to yourself when you realise you are reading Lamentations – well done! Most haven’t read it, ever.

The reading plan has done its best to be as chronological as history directs. Lamentations is taken as written by Jeremiah although it is strictly anonymous. Following the history up to this point you would have read the virtually endless pleas and warnings from God about pending trouble if the nation of Israel doesn’t change its ways of wickedness. Judah has managed to hold off an attack and exile longer than Israel. But time is up and in 587 B.C the horror of horrors befalls Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar and his powerful and utterly brutal Babylonians destroy the city. It takes time to destroy the once muscular walls, level the palaces and great houses, but most painfully they set the Temple on fire, destroying it and taking all its valuables and precious artefacts.

The people suffered too. All but the poorest of the poor are carried off to Babylon. This left Judah as a province of Babylon. Gedeliah, a Babylonian appointed governor, is killed a few months after being installed. Those left in Jerusalem (of which Jeremiah chose to be one) became increasingly scared and planned to flee to Egypt. Jeremiah tells them that God says he will protect them and they should stay, but they accuse Jeremiah of lying and he leaves with them to Egypt. Jerusalem and Judah was left battered and barren.

Lamentations is a poetic book recording the total despair felt at this time. It laments the city and the people’s fate. It acknowledges that their sin has been great and God did warn them. It deals with the emotion of finding out that behind the Babylonian destruction was not a powerful nation but their God himself.

The context of the letter makes it very readable and understandable. Keep in mind that you are reading picture-rich poetry. Here are the main ideas of each chapter:

Chapter 1 – Jerusalem is weeping and wailing. Sin is the cause and God is just in his actions. A plea for punishment of the enemy and restoring of Jerusalem.

Chapter 2 – A taking stock of the problem and the punishment. And acknowledgement that only the hand that dealt the blow can restore the nation again.

Chapter 3 – This chapter balances the awfulness of God’s judgment with the righteousness of his character. The people are urged to repent and return to God, hoping that Babylon would fall in the future.

Chapter 4 – The horror of the present is highlighted by showing the extent of the former glory of Jerusalem.

Chapter 5 – a prayer and appeal to the Lord to restore the fortunes of his people physically and their relationship with him as their God.

Pic: Gebhard Fugel

The book of Habakkuk

Understanding Habakkuk might be one of our most important tasks since the coming of the prosperity gospel to the church in the 1950’s. Habakkuk sees God’s people suffering and expects prosperity. He prays over and over and God is seemingly doing nothing about it. So Habakkuk was troubled with the eternal “Why?”

Habakkuk has seen the fall of Assyria. He had been through the contending for power by the Egyptians and Babylonians. Now he knows that God has warned that Babylon might attack Judah if they don’t repent of their wicked behaviour.

Habakkuk records his interactions with God. He asks two major questions. Firstly, why is Judah in such disarray and why is God doing nothing to help them out of it? God answers by saying that the desperately wicked Babylonians will invade and exile them. Secondly, after hearing God’s answer to the first question, Habakkuk wants to know why Babylon feature in his plan when they are actually more wicked that Judah? God answers yet again. Habakkuk comes to a place where he doesn’t understand everything but he does understand God, and he realises that he can fully trust the God he has come to know.

Pic: The Prophet Habakkuk, by Girolamo Romanino, from the Sacrament Chapel of the church of St. John the Evangelist in Brescia, Italy. (1521-4)

Study Habakkuk more in-depth

This six part course covers the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, showing how a Christian can respond in times of perplexity. The course is periodically taught at our Equipping Courses (evenings or mornings).

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The book of Jeremiah

Jeremiah prophesied for more than forty years. He wrote down his material on a great scroll with the help of Baruch his scribe. The material is not arranged chronologically and it would seem he wrote down the words that came to mind when he felt that it was necessary to unravel the scroll and record more. His main words are directives concerning Judah; three cities – Jerusalem, Babylon and Damascus; seven Gentile nations; and the Messiah. A mark of Jeremiah’s prophecy is the object lessons he employs to explain God’s revelation to the people. Our imagination bubbles as we will think of him wearing a rotten girdle or yoking himself like an ox and then breaking a bottle in the presence of the king as he explains what God wants to be known.

Jeremiah is the ninth of the prophets. He prophesied to the southern kingdom of Judah before and during the days of captivity. He witnessed three major historical events in his life:

(1) The battle of Megiddo between Judah and Pharaoh-Necho the Egyptian (the battle in which king Josiah was killed).

(2) The first defeat by Nebuchadnezzar when Judah was a vassal for Egypt.

(3) The capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the exile of Israel to Babylon.

At just 21,  Jeremiah tells us more than any other prophet about himself. He begins by being worried about his age, inexperience and inability to speak well. But God has his way and Jeremiah faces many attacks, insults and strong disapprovals as God’s mouthpiece. His writing is full of emotion and he seems to be a humble, tender, yet strong man.

In reading through the book you will find that chapter 1 is taken up with the call of Jeremiah. Chapter 2-38 concerns Judah before the fall of Jerusalem. With long silences between the prophecies are what was said during the reign of Josiah (2:1-12:17), Jehoiakim (13:1-20:18; 25:1-27:11) and Zedekiah (21:1-24:10; 27:12-39:18). During the reign of Josiah the prophecies mainly concern warnings and God’s knowledge of Judah’s sin with a call to repent and change. Jehoiakim’s reign saw God declaring the judgement of Judah and surrounding nations. Nebuchadnezzar places Zedekiah on the throne in place of Jehoiakim (in his 4th year as king). Chapters 39-52 are during the reign of Zedekiah and are taken up with Zedekiah’s false prophets and Jeremiah in a continual stand off. Jeremiah also predicts that Judah will be in exile longer than they think and tells them that they will definitely return, the Messiah will come, and that the scattered of Israel will recover.

Jeremiah’s word to Judah could be summarised as follows: chosen, captured, carried away, coming Messiah.

Pic: “Jeremiah” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1630)

The book of Zephaniah

Fifty years has elapsed since the prophecy of Nahum. Zephaniah was most likely a prince in the house of Judah, being a descendant of Hezekiah. He lived during the reign of Josiah, a good king after two idol worshipping kings had followed Hezekiah. When king Josiah (only eight years old) took the throne the situation in Judah could not have been worse. Social injustice, moral corruption, and spiritual suicide pervaded idolatrous Judah. The words of Zephaniah must have really encouraged Josiah who would become one of the most loved of Judah’s kings.

At the beginning of his reign, Hilkiah the Priest guided Josiah and tended to keep the status quo. Then Josiah came under the influence of Zephaniah. At 16 he destroyed the altars in Jerusalem. At 20 he destroyed pagan altars throughout Judah. At 28 he began to rebuild the (by now) decrepit-looking temple of God. While cleaning the temple they discovered the Law of Moses and were shocked when they read what was inside. He ordered the Law to be read and obeyed in the whole land. But the people never really changed from the heart. Josiah is unfortunately killed in battle and the people don’t heed the message.

Almost every time in the Old Testament, when the day of the Lord is mentioned, it refers to a period of time. When numbers are mentioned before the day it may refer to 24-hours. The ‘day of the Lord’ is a time of the Lord’s special working. Through Zephaniah God is warning Judah that a time is coming when God will act in judgement and special power to rid them of idols, taking them into captivity.

Zephaniah introduces three important concepts (see if you can spot them). Firstly he shows us that a faithful remnant of people will return from captivity. Secondly the salvation and conversion of non-Israelites. And thirdly that one-day people will be able to worship God anywhere and not only in Jerusalem.

Terms that could trip you up

Milcom – also Molech. A netherworld god whose rituals were similar to Canaanite origins focussing on dead ancestors. Child sacrifice was a big part of Molech worship.

Threshold – a single stone that spanned the doorway and was slightly raised compared to the floor. It seems there were Near Eastern superstitions about stepping on the threshold somehow allowing demons that haunted the entrance to come in.

Second Quarter – the walls built by Hezekiah along the Western hills of the city of Jerusalem (2 Chron. 32:5)

The Mortar – a district in the city of Jerusalem called upon to repent. Mortar was the Market district.

Gaza and Ashkelon – Philistine cities in the late seventh century.

Cushites – the Ethiopians. It is unclear why they are denounced.

The book of Nahum

Jonah preaching to the pagan capital of Assyria has made Nineveh famous. But Nahum is 150 years later and Assyria has been as full of the violence and bloodshed as the empire it was known for. Unlike Jonah, Nahum tells Nineveh and Assyria of their certain fall and doom with no chance to repent (1:9). Nahum poetically visualises a courtroom scene to describe his words. This could be broken up into three big sections.

Firstly, in Nahum 1:1-7 we have a statement of the character of the judge. We look up to the bench to examine the kind of judge that will issue a verdict to Nineveh. We behold God as a Judge and a Father. When the Christian looks at God the judge it should immediately make us utterly thankful to Jesus. He has taken the judgement upon himself. God as Judge is jealous, vengeful, furious, wrathful, great in power, and will not acquit the wicked and indignant. His holiness as Judge is awfully awesome.

But He is also Father. As Father God He is slow to anger, good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and one who knows them that trust Him. When we put these together we see that God has taken His time with Assyria. He sent Jonah; He has borne with them for years. But now after many years and many warnings the time for them to receive justice has come.

Secondly, in Nahum 1:8-14 we see the verdict passed upon Nineveh. God knows everything. He puts all they have done onto the scales and because of what they have done he issues the verdict and sentence. Because of Nineveh’s wickedness it is condemned to utter destruction (1:8-9), to be captured like a drunkard (1:10), have their name blotted out (1:14), to have their grave dug by God (1:14).

Thirdly the execution is described in chapters 2-3. The Medes and Babylonians completely destroyed Nineveh in 612 B.C at the high point of its power. Nahum’s prophecy came true. The Tigris floods and washes away a large part of the wall thought impenetrable. Pandemonium erupts in the city as drunken nobles try to rally the troops as they discover vast armies of Medes gathered with brilliantly painted shields, bright robes and shining spears. The destruction is total. So deep is that grave that God digs for Nineveh that the ruins were only found in 1845. Until then the stories of Nineveh were considered mythical. What Nineveh sowed it reaped. They told God He didn’t exist and wasn’t worth seeking or knowing, and so Nineveh ceased to exist and wasn’t known or found. Their sin was punished and their wealth couldn’t stop it (3:1-19).

For us there are many teachings in Nahum. Jesus’ sacrifice taking God’s justice upon himself is shown magnificent. God is the God of all the nations of the world. People who don’t turn to the God of the Bible truly do have an end that is horrible to even think of.

Pic: Nineveh, by James Ferguson (1853)

The book of Hosea

Most people know Hosea as the guy who the Lord commanded to marry a prostitute (Gomer). It is a rich and deep story. If there was fire in Amos’ eyes then there is sorrow and tears in Hosea’s just ten years later. Israel hadn’t listened to Amos. The Lord raised up Hosea to describe Israel’s sin in another more emotional and close-to-the-heart manner.

Remember, Israel is in a troubled time. From some aspects things are going well. The golden reign of Jeroboam II is coming to a close. There is economic prosperity and political stability but the people don’t care for Yahweh their loving Father (11:1) and husband (1-2). They are unashamedly sacrificing and worshipping Baal, that age-old Canaanite god that has plagued Israel for years.

God uses Hosea to teach Israel with a visual picture. He is to marry a harlot. He is to take her into his home and give her status as a wife. They have children. But she betrays him more than once. Israel has been unfaithful to God in the same way. The pain a husband experiences in knowing his wife has slept with other men is God’s pain over Israel’s worship of Baal. God is loyal and loving. Because of this he will help Israel with her unfaithfulness. Assyria will be a bad taste in her mouth. Israel will know what it is like to be ‘married’ to a foreign god, and Israel will hate it.

Hosea’s poetic look at God and Israel leaves us with a host of metaphors to teach us about himself, Israel and ourselves. God is loyal and loving. His loyalty is stronger than his anger. God wants spiritual marriage with us. He is jealous for us. And us… well Hosea draws us to tears when we are confronted with God’s plea: “don’t play the whore” (9:1).