From generation to generation
Ezra 1: Who among you belongs to his people?
Nebuchadnezzar, it turns out, is the last strong king of Babylon and his destruction of Jerusalem comes near the end of his reign. Before long a new world power rises to swallow Babylon. Cyrus has united the Medes and the Persians, creating a powerful and ambitious kingdom. While it’s probably true that Babylon would have fallen under its own weight anyway, the Persians speed things up to dominate the entire region. For the scattered people of Israel, it appears to simply be a change from one conqueror to another. However, this point of view fails to take the hand of the Almighty into account. This new ruler doesn’t have the negative emotional baggage toward these people that Nebuchadnezzar had. He saw them as a stubborn and rebellious people. Cyrus, on the other hand, wants their God to look on him favorably. A series of events causes him to authorize the rebuilding of the Temple that was destroyed before he was ever born. Because of that he offers these second and third generation exiles permission to return to Jerusalem for that purpose. Many of the Hebrews are satisfied to stay where they were, after all this is the land of their birth. However, some, possibly influenced by the writings in the Chronicles are willing to embark on this challenging adventure. As I work through this material I’m reminded that God is the God of History. From generation to generation he continues to work. People are born, live, and then die, passing from the pages of history. However, God always “is.” There are countless individual stories to be told but through it all, there is just One God.
Take Away: There are many stories to be told, but only one God lives and reigns through them all.
Mistaking God’s patience for a lack of seriousness
2Kings 25: This should have been no surprise — God had said it would happen.
Judah finds itself in the middle, right between two warring world powers. On one side is Egypt and on the other is Babylon. Like some small island out in the Pacific during the Second World War, this small nation is thrust onto the world stage, not because of its military might, but simply because of its location. Upon Josiah’s untimely death the nation struggles for its identity. Sadly, it is Josiah’s reforms that lose favor. Soon, the nation is once again on the road to spiritual and national disaster. Raiding bands begin to assault Judah as the two big players on the world scene fight it out. It’s Babylon that wins. Following the “conquer and relocate” policy of Assyria before them the people of Jerusalem are relocated to a distant land with only the poor left to be ruled by a puppet king. The writer of 2nd Kings tells us that no one should have been surprised. For over 300 years they’ve been warned that God isn’t some kind of lucky charm for them. They mistakenly thought that being the “people of God” meant that, ultimately, they would be safe. They thought that because of Josiah’s reforms they were inoculated against failure. Because of the patience and mercy of God over the years, they downplayed the warnings they were given again and again. Finally though, things happened just as God had said they would. I’m reminded today that God isn’t kidding when he says he’ll judge sin. It’s a dangerous thing to mistake the patience of God with his not being serious in what he says.
Take Away: Don’t mistake the patience of the Lord for a lack of seriousness on his part.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
2Kings 24: The threat from Egypt was now over.
Aside from the remaining wealth amassed by Solomon Judah is a minor player on the world stage. The real action has been between mighty Egypt and mighty Babylonia. Egypt is the old power and Babylonia is the new. The small kingdoms that are unfortunate enough to be between the two are mere pawns in their chess match for domination of the region. Babylon wins. Having driven Egyptian forces out of the region, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon now turns his attention to subduing the small kingdoms of the region. Judah has been defeated once, but as Nebuchadnezzar’s attention has been on other matters, Jehoiakim, king of Judah revolted, leading to a series of attacks by other smaller armies against Jerusalem. Judah has been driven to her knees as Nebuchadnezzar, himself, arrives to direct the assault on the small beleaguered country. Jerusalem surrenders and Babylonian forces plunder the city. There will be a few more stories to tell, but the grave is already dug and the end of Judah is at hand. There have been some less than perfect opportunities for Judah to remain a nation. For instance, Jehoiakim didn’t have to rebel and could have continued to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar. Still, as we’re reminded several times here, “God said it would happen.” For them, this is Judgment Day. Anyone who thinks God is “too good” or “too kind” to pronounce condemnation on those who reject him should read the final chapters of 2 Kings.
Take Away: Never doubt that the holiness of the Lord means he will judge sin.
God is still God even when everything’s falling apart
Daniel 1: The Master handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him.
My devotional journey moves now to the book of Daniel. I’m glad to arrive here. For several months I’ve spent time in some of the hard scrabble writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. I’m ready to enjoy some devotional reading of some of the greatest stories of the Bible. Daniel isn’t above giving us visions and prophecies. In fact, his book is divided almost equally between stories of God’s deliverance and prophecies of God’s sovereignty. For now, though, I’m looking forward to Daniel’s rise to prominence in Babylon, the story of the fiery furnace, and, of course, the lion’s den! The events of Daniel take place around 600 years before Christ. When King Jehoiakim of Judah rebels against his master Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon Jerusalem is attacked and brought to her knees. The Temple is ransacked and many of its citizens are taken captive. Among the captives are members of the royal line. Nebuchadnezzar’s policy is to pick of the best of the people of this defeated nation and indoctrinate them into the ways of his nation. Daniel is one of those chosen for this. Off he goes to Babylon, apparently, under the control of a king and government that has no interest in his Hebrew heritage. In this dark hour of uncertainty it may seem to Daniel and friends that God had lost interest in them, but it isn’t so. Things are just getting interesting!
Take Away: When it seems all is lost the Lord is just getting started!
Free will and accountability
Isaiah 47: You’re acting like the center of the Universe.
God Almighty hands his chosen people over to Babylon, the powerhouse of that day. His purpose is to humble Israel and bring this rebellious people back to himself. However, Babylon goes farther than God intends and now the Lord rebukes Babylon for going too far. I think there’s a case to be made here for the doctrine of free will. God gives Babylon the power and position to dominate the region. Then when Babylon behaves in cruel ways God says they’ve gone too far and that he’ll now knock them off their high horse. They think they’re the “center of the universe” but the real “Center of the Universe” is about to put them in their place. Another thing that comes to mind here is the underlying theme of God’s love. God has been stern with Israel, but it’s out of love. He’s willing to use Babylon to bring them to submission but there’s a limit to how far God wants that to go. I’m reminded of how in the book of Job that God gives Satan permission to strike Job, but in doing so the Lord also tells him that there’s a limit to how far he can go. On one hand, therefore, I see here my accountability to God as to what I say and do, even when I’m operating within the providence of God. On the other hand, I see that God loves me, and when I’m on the receiving end of hardship that he’s set boundaries, not allowing me to be tempted beyond what I can bear.
Take Away: The Lord’s discipline of us is governed by his love for us.
Only God can speak of the future with certainty
Isaiah 14: Exactly as I planned, it will happen.
The topic is still the downfall of mighty Babylon. The very subject likely sounds like so much wishful thinking to many. After all, Isaiah is talking about an unstoppable world power that dominates the entire region. Any suggestion that Babylon will come crashing down must be an excursion into fiction. Still, that’s Isaiah’s message. Even though no power on earth can challenge this mighty army, a Power above earth has it in His sights. Now, some have used this passage as a proof that God has either fully mapped out the future or somehow travels through time or even exists in all of time at once. I accept the possibility of the first, but can’t see the “time travel” versions. For one thing, everything we know about God is what he’s told us or shown us about himself. We might read something in the Bible and conclude that God did it, or knew it, because he “looked ahead in time.” However, to do that is to come to our own conclusions, and not because we’ve been given a Biblical insight about God. Well, so much for the “time travel.” The first suggestion is that God mapped it all out. As I said, I believe that’s possible. That is, I believe the Almighty has the power and authority to do just that. The problem for me isn’t in that arena at all. Instead, it’s that such a view destroys the possibility of free will. In other words, God could map everything out, but he can’t plan it all and still grant free will to human beings. That leaves me with a view of God that concludes he “could” have designed a universe in which he could travel through time, but we have no evidence that he did and that he could have written the entirety of Creation out on day one, but he couldn’t have done that and given human beings anything greater than the illusion of free will. So what do I do with a passage in which God says things will happen as he planned? I’ll simply accept it. Babylon has displeased the Almighty who says, “Because you have acted as you have, I’ve decided just how I’m going to do away with you.” Things will happen to Babylon as God has said because God is going to bring it to pass. It’s not because he’s already seen it, looking into the future or because he intended, from the beginning, for Babylon to fail as it will. Rather, it’s God, in Sovereign authority, declaring what he is going to bring to pass.
Take Away: It’s fun to think about the nature of time and the foreknowledge of God, but we’d better not get too theologically invested in our musing.