Introduction to Ezra

Today we begin our study of the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  We will walk through the two books one at a time – first Ezra, then Nehemiah.

The last time we were in the Old Testament, we walked through Jeremiah, followed by Lamentations.  In these two books, we saw God warn His people (the southern tribe of Judah) that their worship of other gods and their hardness of heart towards Him would cause them to lose their freedom and autonomy as well as their homes in the land God had given them.

The people of Judah ignored God’s hand against their northern cousins in Israel who had been taken captive by the Assyrians many years before.  They also ignored God’s prophets and persisted in their sin.  Just as God had promised, He sent the army from the north (the Babylonians) to take Judah captive and ransack Jerusalem.

God also promised to return His people to their homeland after 70 years of exile and captivity.  God used Ezra and Nehemiah and others to lead His people back to their promised land.  The chart below shows the relationship of the books of Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah, and their timelines.

CHRONOLOGICAL RELATIONSHIP OF
EZRA-NEHEMIAH-ESTHER
538-515BC 483-473BC 457BC 13 Year

Gap

444-425BC
Ezra 1-6 Book of Esther Ezra 7-10 Book of Nehemiah
First Return
of Jews from
Babylonian Exile
58 Year
Gap
Second Return
of Jews from Babylonian Exile
Third Return
of Jews from
Babylonian Exile

(chart from http://www.preceptaustin.org/ezra_commentaries)

Ezra was a scribe by trade, from the priestly family of Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5).  As a scribe, he was likely the author of the book of Ezra (although he never identifies himself as author) and the book of Nehemiah.   Scholars say that it is likely that Ezra was also most likely the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles.  One such evidence to support this claim is that the ending of the Chronicles (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) is virtually identical to the beginning of the book of Ezra (Ezra 1:1-3).

Just as God led His people out of captivity in Egypt to the land He had promised them, He was now leading His people out of exile back to the land He had given them.  God had used Moses to lead His people out of Egypt; now God was using Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah to lead His people back to their homeland.

Just as in their journey from Egypt to the promised land, God’s people would have enemies to face and choices to make as to whether to depend on Him or on their own strength.  And just like their forefathers coming out of Egypt, God’s people would have to choose to live according to God’s Law or to ignore it and choose to live like their ungodly neighbors and their forefathers.

Both books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal with facing opposition from enemies and choosing to follow the Lord (or not).  While Ezra and Nehemiah were not prophets, God used them as restorers, reformers, and rebuilders.  Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s positions within their captor’s government allowed them access to documents and resources as God graciously turned the hearts of the king toward Himself and to His people.

While God was working through Ezra and Nehemiah as leaders, He was also working through the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.  While these prophets are contemporaries of Ezra and Nehemiah, we will not look at their books at this time.

Chapters 1 – 6 of Ezra detail the first return of exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple under the command of Zerubbabel.  Chapters 7 – 10 of Ezra document the second return of the exiles under Ezra’s leadership, as well as Ezra’s call for national repentance and reformation regarding intermarrying with the pagan nations surrounding God’s people.

From this overview, we see that God is the God of second chances.  His love for His people leads Him to discipline HIs children for their wayward actions, but then restore them to a relationship with Himself, meet their needs, and be their God.

And just as He loved the children of Israel and Judah in Ezra’s day, may we remember that He loves us and gives us second chances in our day, also.  God’s transcendent love bridges culture, geography, and time, as do His character traits of holiness and righteousness.

May we pay attention to what the Lord will teach us through this study, and rejoice in His unconditional love and our second chances.

Blessings,
~kevin

Psalm 21

Psalm 21

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

The king rejoices in your strength, Lord.
    How great is his joy in the victories you give!

You have granted him his heart’s desire
    and have not withheld the request of his lips.
You came to greet him with rich blessings
    and placed a crown of pure gold on his head.
He asked you for life, and you gave it to him—
    length of days, for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great;
    you have bestowed on him splendor and majesty.
Surely you have granted him unending blessings
    and made him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the Lord;
    through the unfailing love of the Most High
    he will not be shaken.

Your hand will lay hold on all your enemies;
    your right hand will seize your foes.
When you appear for battle,
    you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
    and his fire will consume them.
10 You will destroy their descendants from the earth,
    their posterity from mankind.
11 Though they plot evil against you
    and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed.
12 You will make them turn their backs
    when you aim at them with drawn bow.

13 Be exalted in your strength, Lord;
    we will sing and praise your might.
(Psalm 21 NIV)

Today’s text (Psalm 21) is the thankful response to yesterday’s prayer (Psalm 20).  King David cried out to the Lord for help and protection against his enemies; the Lord answered and David rejoiced!

When we pray earnestly and expectantly, and the Lord answers fearlessly and forcefully, what is our response?  Do we remember to thank God at all?  Or do we say a quick “thank you Lord” and move on with our day?

King David personally takes the time to record his meditations and praise to the Lord for answered prayers.  David recognizes God’s hand of protection and blessing and gives God the glory for all that He has done on behalf of His people and himself.

In Psalm 20:7, David put his trust in the Lord and not in his armies or others.  In Psalm 21:7, David reiterates his trust in the Lord alone, citing God’s unfailing love in the past as his assurance of God’s continuing watch-care over them in the present and the future.

In verses 8 – 13, David speaks of the Lord’s dominance over His enemies.  David recognizes that these people may be coming after him and his kingdom, but in the larger scheme of things, they are God’s enemies.

These enemies may think they are pursuing David and the Israelites, but when they arrive for battle, God shows up to defend His people.  David uses strong imagery to portray the fate of God’s enemies:

  • God will grab hold of them so they can’t get away (v. 8)
  • The anger of God’s enemies is nothing compared to God’s righteous wrath against them (v. 9)
  • God will stop their families from perpetuating further evil against Him (v. 10)
  • God will frustrate and stop the enemies’ evil plots and wicked schemes (v. 11)
  • When the enemies show up and realize God has them in His crosshairs and is ready to fire on them, they will turn their backs and run away in fear (v. 12)

Take some extended time today to worship and thank God for His provision and protection, for His strength and His might in watching over us as His followers (v. 12).

Blessings,
~kevin

Psalm 20

Psalm 20

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

May the Lord answer you when you are in distress;
    may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and grant you support from Zion.
May he remember all your sacrifices
    and accept your burnt offerings.
May he give you the desire of your heart
    and make all your plans succeed.
May we shout for joy over your victory
    and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Now this I know:
    The Lord gives victory to his anointed.
He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary
    with the victorious power of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
    but we rise up and stand firm.
Lord, give victory to the king!
    Answer us when we call!
(Psalm 20 NIV)

What is your battle today?

  • Maybe it’s a person.
  • Maybe it’s a habit.
  • Maybe it’s an object (think: technology).
  • Maybe it’s an attitude or a mindset.
  • Maybe it’s a schedule or pressure to perform or deliver a good or service.

Whatever we’re battling with today, King David reminds us to trust in God alone (v. 7) for our deliverance.

How often we try to solve our problems ourselves, quickly running out of our limited resources.  And if we don’t rely on ourselves, we often put our hope and trust in someone or something else instead of the Lord.

This psalm is set in King David’s day and is focused on his military activities against one of the many enemies of his country.  This psalm is a prayer for victory over David’s enemies; Psalm 21 is David’s praise and thanksgiving for God answering his prayer and giving victory over his enemies.

In this broken, fallen world, life is a struggle.  Anyone who promises that life is easy or a breeze is seriously deluded.

But despite the thorns and pains of life, the Lord promises to provide for our needs and promises to go before us and with us along life’s journey.

Lord, we call upon you today – we need Your help to take on the battles of the day.  We acknowledge and confess our brokenness and our need of You and You alone to provide the victory over whatever we’re battling today.

Lord, please accept the meager offerings of our time, our talents, our resources, our selves today – You have given Your all for us; what we offer back You don’t need; You already own the cattle on a thousand hills.  All we have and give back is already Yours, but we pray our offerings may bring You glory.

Lord, thank You for answering our prayers; help us to trust in You and You alone for our deliverance, strength, and wisdom as we begin our journey called “today”.

May Your name be praised today and forevermore.

Amen.

Blessings,
~kevin

Psalm 91

Psalm 91

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

14 “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
    I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
    I will be with him in trouble,
    I will deliver him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
    and show him my salvation.”
(Psalm 91 NIV)

What a great reminder of the presence and protection that the Lord provides for those who follow Him!

Do you suppose Jesus was thinking of this psalm (particularly verse 4) when He said:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
(Matthew 23:37 NIV)

In this psalm, we see the loving and caring nature and character of God shine forth.  We also see the brokenness of the world around us.

The psalmist shares the peace and comfort he experiences in the midst of the trouble and turmoil around him in verses 1 – 13.

In verses 14 – 16, the Lord responds to the psalmist with His promise to be with the psalmist through life’s hardships and difficulties.

May John Newton’s timeless hymn be a comfort and reflection of today’s psalm, encouraging you in your walk and worship of our Lord today:

  1. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
    That saved a wretch like me!
    I once was lost, but now am found;
    Was blind, but now I see.
  2. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
    And grace my fears relieved;
    How precious did that grace appear
    The hour I first believed.
  3. Through many dangers, toils and snares,
    I have already come;
    ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
    And grace will lead me home.
  4. The Lord has promised good to me,
    His Word my hope secures;
    He will my Shield and Portion be,
    As long as life endures.
  5. Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
    And mortal life shall cease,
    I shall possess, within the veil,
    A life of joy and peace.
  6. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
    The sun forbear to shine;
    But God, who called me here below,
    Will be forever mine.
  7. When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
    Bright shining as the sun,
    We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
    Than when we’d first begun.

 Blessings,
~kevin

Mark 16:9-20

[The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.]

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
(Mark 16:9-20 NIV)

As we wrap up the Gospel of Mark, we would not be complete without at least a discussion of this last section of the book.

Scholars believe Mark’s writings ended with verse 8.  All the earliest manuscripts ended at verse 8; only later manuscripts contained verses 9 through 20.

Scholars also point out that the writing style changes dramatically from Mark’s signature style throughout the rest of the book.  Also, the subjects covered seem to be snippets of the other gospels and of the disciples’ and Paul’s life events pulled together.

So why would the early church fathers add on to Mark’s work?  The primary conjecture among scholars is that the early church fathers felt that Mark’s gospel abrupt ending at verse 8 was incomplete – it said nothing of Jesus’ post-resurrection days, nor of his ascension back into heaven.  The question in the early church fathers’ minds seemed to be “why”, so they set out to give Mark’s gospel a proper ending.

In fact, the ending Mark provides in verse 8 is not surprising – it is as fast to finish as it was to start in 1:1-3.  Mark leaves us with the three women, running from the empty tomb back into the city, waiting to breathlessly exclaim “He has risen!” to the disciples.

As we look back to the Book of Acts and the other letters and epistles of the New Testament, we see this news of Jesus’ resurrection as a total game-changer.  The defeated and scattered disciples were now gathered, empowered through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised and were going out and turning the world upside down with His story, even giving their lives to share Jesus’ redemption with any and all who would listen.

May we snap out of our slumber to the reality of Mark’s gospel, like the women leaving the empty tomb, believing before seeing, in faith ready to exclaim “He has risen!”.

This is the.best.news.ever.

Blessings,
~kevin

Mark 16:1-8

16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene,who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
(Mark 16:1-8 NIV)

Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.  Before sundown on Friday, Joseph of Arimathea had boldly asked Pilate, the Roman governor, to give Jesus’ body a proper burial.  Pilate, surprised that Jesus was dead already, ordered a soldier to verify Jesus’ death.  Upon the soldier’s verification, Pilate released Jesus’ body to Joseph.  Joseph then prepared Jesus’ body for burial, placing Jesus’ washed and wrapped body in a tomb and rolling a large stone over the entrance.

Early Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn, the three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome) that had been present at Jesus’ crucifixion (15:40) and at Jesus’ burial (15:47) are now returning to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices.  The spices were not to embalm Jesus’ body, but rather to mask the smell of decomposition.  This was the final step of burial that they were not able to perform before Friday sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath moratorium on work.

These women expected that they would find Jesus’ body still in the tomb.  Their biggest concern was who would be available to roll away the stone that covered the entrance to the tomb.

Imagine their surprise when they arrive and find the stone already rolled back!  They step inside, only to be shocked again when a young man dressed in white (presumably an angel) speaks to them.  He assures them that yes, they are at the correct tomb, and yes, Jesus was buried here, but is now physically resurrected from the dead.

The angel then commands the women to go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee, just as He had promised.  The women fled the tomb in fear, not saying a word to anyone along the way.

Imagine Peter telling this story to young Mark, how the angel had specifically called out his name.  Peter was likely drowning in self-loathing and had given up on ever being reconciled to God.  Before Peter ever saw Jesus after the resurrection, the angel’s words must have given Peter hope that Jesus wanted to restore their relationship.

As we put ourselves alongside the women as they approach the tomb in unbelief, we are confronted with the reality of an angel and his good news of Jesus’ resurrection and a promise of seeing Him face-to-face.

How would we respond to an empty tomb and the angel’s message?  Would we turn away in disbelief, with no proof that Jesus was there?  Or would we believe in Jesus’ resurrection before we see Him?

Do we look back on Jesus’ history and life before He died, as just another historical figure?  Or do we look forward in faith and joyous expectation of meeting Him face-to-face one day?

Faith requires belief and trust before proof.  This is not “faith in faith” or “hope in hope”, crossing our fingers and wishing that all will turn out in our favor.  This faith is grounded in the person of Jesus as our only means of peace with God.  His physical resurrection from the dead gives us hope that there is life after death, and we can know of our standing and relationship with God this side of heaven.

In his subsequent letter to the churches, Peter expresses this same choice of faith and hope in Christ before we one day meet Him face-to-face:

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV)

Blessings,
~kevin

Mark 15:42-47

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.
(Mark 15:42-47 NIV)

It’s Friday, the day Jesus was crucified.

Late in the day, Joseph of Arimathea, one of the members of the Sanhedrin, came to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.  Mark points out that this was a bold move on Joseph’s part.  One reason was that this move publicly identified  Joseph with Jesus.  Joseph’s Sanhedrin counterparts would find out about this soon enough and Joseph would likely feel the consequences of his actions.

Joseph’s request was also bold because the Romans believed that people that had been crucified did not deserve to be buried.  The Romans would often leave the bodies on the cross, and the natural elements, wild birds, and animals would eventually consume the body.  Could it be that this place of crucifixion was called Golgotha (“the place of the skull”) because that was literally all that that was left of a person after a period of time?

The Roman view of the deceased was directly opposed to God’s view.  In Deuteronomy 21:23, God had instructed the Israelites that bodies must be buried the same day as the execution.  To leave the body exposed (not buried) overnight would desecrate the land.  To show respect for the dead and to give them a proper burial, even dead criminals, showed respect for God as the author of life and judge of both the living and the dead.

Joseph’s request for Jesus’ body was also bold because the Romans typically did not give permission for anyone convicted of high treason to be buried.  The fact that Pilate did not believe Jesus was guilty of high treason was one of the reasons Pilate granted Joeseph’s request.  Pilate granting Joeseph’s request is also unusual in that family members were normally the only ones that requested and were granted permission to body a body.

Pilate’s biggest surprise from Joeseph’s request was that Jesus was already dead.  Normally it took a person several days to die via crucifixion.  Pilate needed to be sure that Jesus was dead, so he sent his centurion to verify.  After receiving confirmation, Pilate granted Joseph’s request.

As evening approached, Joseph (obviously with help of others) took Jesus’ body down from the cross and gave it a proper burial.  A proper Jewish burial consisted of washing the body, then wrapping it tightly in linen cloths.  All this had to be done before sundown, as the Sabbath started Friday night at sundown and no work could be done on the Sabbath.

After Joseph had prepared Jesus’ body for burial, he laid the body in a tomb cut into the rock.  Joseph then rolled a large stone in front of the tomb to seal the entrance.

In his closing notes, Mark points out that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph were still present, noting where Jesus’ body was laid.

One of the perplexing questions some people ask is why did Joseph of Arimathea not stand up in Jesus’ defense during Jesus’ trial?  Why did he wait until Jesus had died to publicly identify with Jesus?  Was Joseph ashamed of Jesus, or was he just a coward?

Or did something truly change in Joseph’s life that caused him to believe that Jesus is the Messiah?

Jesus, in John’s account of the Gospel, said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  (John 12:32).  Could it be that Joseph was one of the first converts, one of the first ones to publicly follow Jesus after Jesus’ death, just as He had prophesied?

It’s still Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

Blessings,
~kevin