Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ezra & Nehemiah

I'm reading a fascinating commentary right now on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah by Matthew Levering in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. The two books are quite similar, actually. It is an interesting exercise to sit down some evening and read slowly through both of them back to back. Unfortunately, these are not the most frequently read portions of the Scripture, even though I think they describe a period of time in the history of Israel that can teach us a lot about hardship, faithfulness, and rebuilding after calamity and loss.

The two long books of Chronicles end with the destruction of Jerusalem. Ezra is kind of like an addendum that tells how some returned from captivity in Babylon in order to rebuild the temple and try to restore their religion. The commentator I am reading specializes in writing about how Jesus is the fulfillment of "temple" and "torah", that is, Jesus is the fulfillment of the very things the returning Israelites are restoring in the narrative that we read as Ezra and Nehemiah.

I really believe some parts of our Christian world today could learn from these chapters. What does it mean to be a faithful or godly remnant rebuilding something that was almost lost?

The first chapter of Ezra that we read this past week introduces the history of the exiles return. The return has a historical location (during the reign of Cyrus). It also fulfills a prophecy (by the mouth of Jeremiah). There actually seem to be four stages to the rebuilding and return, the first under Cyrus, the second under Darius, the third under Artaxerxes, the actual return led by Ezra, and a fourth return under Artaxerxes II led by Nehemiah.

One way to distinguish Ezra from Nehemiah, at least a bit, is that Ezra describes the early rebuilding and the restoration of Torah law, whereas Nehemiah emphasizes the building up of the walls of Jerusalem against opponents. Nehemiah's book is kind of like a memoir, if we were going to label the book's style or type. Nehemiah also concludes with a reading of the book of the law (chapter 8), and a celebration of the festival of booths (also in chapter 8).

A number of the prophetic books are written during this period. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied during this time (see chapter 5 of Ezra). Jeremiah prophesied regarding the return itself. Some historians believe that the author of Isaiah 40-66 wrote the chapters around the same time as Haggai and Zechariah, which means the chapters we are reading right now from Isaiah are also a part of or address this return to Jerusalem.

But Isaiah has become much bigger than this because of what the book actually says. It is an "eschatological" text, which means it points to the future, God's promises, the purposes and ends of all creation. The most famous part of this section is the "Servant Song", which when we read it now we usually if not always connect it in our minds with Jesus Christ himself, the suffering servant. To see what I mean, re-read Isaiah 52:13--53:12. The author and original readers of this text would not have thought what we thought, but we as readers today can't help but think of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of this text.

As you read Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah over the next few weeks, imagine the ways in which Jesus is the fulfillment of this story--but watch also for the ways God is faithful, and the returning exiles live out of that faithfulness. Ask yourself how exile and return is operating in your own life.

In conclusion, I include this quote from Madame Guyon on Bible reading:

"Here is how you should begin. Turn to the Scripture; choose some passage that is simple and fairly practical. Next, come to the Lord. Come quietly and humbly. There, before Him, read a small portion of the passage of Scripture you have opened to.

Be careful as you read. Take in fully, gently and carefully what you are reading. Taste it and digest it as you read.

In the past it may have been your habit, while reading, to move very quickly from one verse of Scripture to another until you had read the whole passage. Perhaps you were seeking to find the main point of the passage.

But in coming to the Lord by means of "praying the Scripture," you do no read quickly; you read very slowly. You do not move from one passage to another, not until you have sensed the very heart of what you read.

You may then want to take that portion of Scripture that has touched you and turn it into prayer."

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