Chapter 5 EXILE and RETURN: Into Captivity and Back Again

July 18 Actively Seek God’s Blessings

Prophets had been crying out to the people about their rebellion against God, but very few listened.  The Assyrian empire was a major military power and after they invaded Israel (the Northern Kingdom), they took many people captive from those ten northern tribes.  The prophets continued to cry out against rebellion and against the cruelty of the Assyrians toward the captives, and God’s wrath came down on His enemies no matter who they were, where they lived or where they were from.

The Southern Kingdom, Judah, had a new and godly king but he was young so God called his relative, Zephaniah, to be His spokesman. Judah is shocked by the message: “I will crush Judah and Jerusalem with my fist and destroy every last trace of their Baal worship. I will put an end to all the idolatrous priests, so that even the memory of them will disappear. For they go up to their roofs and bow down to the sun, moon, and stars. They claim to follow the Lord, but then they worship Molech, too.  And I will destroy those who used to worship me but now no longer do. They no longer ask for the Lord’s guidance or seek my blessings.”

Let’s be wise and not fall for trendy false worship, or think that God is irrelevant in today’s world. There have always been advocates for world-views that are contrary to God’s truth. Don’t let the days and then the years slip away to where “seeking God” becomes something that we used to do. Instead let’s keep asking God to lead us today.  It is good to seek His blessings, and God does not mumble when He says that He is to be our exclusive choice. God, create in us a desire to know You more deeply. Please guide all of us who seek to follow You.  No matter what is taking place around us, may we choose to focus on You, invite You into the situation, and listen for Your wise counsel.  Day-by-day, step-by-step, may we obediently follow You.  Amen.

Zephaniah 1:4-6 NLT

July 25 Bless the God of Heaven

King Nebuchadnezzar, as we will find out, is an interesting character in God’s Story. At first glimpse we might stereotype him as the bad guy for he powerfully ruled an enemy kingdom.  Nebuchadnezzar ordered that the smart and handsome young men of Judah’s royal family be taken captive and trained to serve in his palace in Babylon.  Daniel was one of the Southern Kingdom’s elite and he was selected for this role.  Early on he resolved not to defile himself in this new environment and instead remain faithful to God.

Daniel was given an opportunity to declare the power, wisdom and goodness of God when he volunteered to interpret a disturbing dream that bothered King Nebuchadnezzar.  Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven.  Daniel answered and said: “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might.” Daniel did not take the credit himself but gave credit where credit was due: to God.

What we resolve to do, or not to do, says so much about us.  Living faithfully in that steadfast resolve builds character, and God uses people of character to communicate to others that they too can know God and grow in His good character. That is the way He does it; don’t we need human examples of godly living? Healthy teaching coupled with learners who desire to mature, is like seeds falling on suitable soil; growth will happen.

During the end our last year of living in Thailand, Russell taught the book of Daniel at our house church.  Each Tuesday the ladies of our church gathered to discuss the lesson and study more verses from Daniel. We prayed together and helped each other with individual applications.  Like Daniel, we wanted to live out our resolves.  Because I knew the year before us would be filled with lots of transition and lots of uncertainty, my resolve was to live presently and thankfully each day.  To make this resolve more concrete, I chose to take at least one photo a day and then journal why I was thankful.  God gave Daniel the ability to interpret dreams for the king.  He gave me peace and gratitude as I lived trusting in Him with resolve through a very unresolved year.

Daniel 2:19-20 ESV

July 27 Blessings Will Come Back 

Meanwhile, 500 miles away from Babylon (if you marched in a straight and direct line) back in Jerusalem, as the city was about to be totally devastated by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was still faithfully proclaiming the Word of the Lord. God’s people needed encouragement but they would face the ramifications of their sin before they would experience the rescue from God.  This is what the LORD says: “Those who survive the coming destruction will find blessings even in the barren land, for I will give rest to the people of Israel.”  …This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “When I bring them back from captivity, the people of Judah and its towns will again say, ‘The LORD bless you, O righteous home, O holy mountain!’ 

This promise became reality, but first the people experienced sin’s consequence: seventy years of captivity.  Make no mistake, sin is a trap, a deadly snare and only God can save us from it.  And oh, how we rejoice when the Lord of Heaven’s Armies comes in to rescue us.  Are we calling out for Him to hear us?  Be wise to know that we cannot handle sin’s net on our own.

Jeremiah 31:2, 23 NLT

July 30 Blessed to Give Firstly to God

Over a dozen years after Jerusalem’s fall, and while still in exile, Ezekiel received another vision from God.  This new vision was for a new Temple.  Along with many precise details of its measurements and what materials to use, God also explained the duties and the privileges of the faithful Levite priests.  The first of the ripe fruits and all the gifts brought to the Lord will go to the priests. The first samples of each grain harvest and the first of your flour must also be given to the priests so the Lord will bless your homes. 

This blessing from God contained conditions for God’s people.  As a real reminder to them that all blessings come from Him, they were to give the first of their harvest back to the Lord.  In this case the gift was given to the priests who had been set apart to serve God.  Once this was done, God would bless their homes. Ezekiel’s devoted ministry prepared many people to return to the Lord, and to see afresh that He is the Giver of all things good. Centuries after Ezekiel faithfully served, godly leaders continue to teach that the blessings received from God are not to be hoarded but given.

With much prayer and informational build-up, Houston’s First Baptist Church launched an incredible giving opportunity in February 2013 called Mission 1:8.  Funds given would support numerous ministries in our city, country, and world. Russell and I were committed as a couple to embrace the incentive by contributing financially as well as with our service.  But I wanted to give money individually too.  The challenge was that I did not have a job.  So as I prayed, I wrote on my pledge card that my desire was to offer my first paycheck.  What blessing was mine as within a month, I was able to give my “first fruits” check, for God provided me with a wonderful job! He continues to bless our home, our family and the work of our hands.  It is a joy to give back to God and give forward to people.

Ezekiel 44:30 NLT

August 3 Blessed to Be Corrected

Job’s suffering grew more intense and more personal. Painful boils covered his entire body and even his wife told him that he should curse God and die.  But Job did not lose his integrity.  Three scholarly friends came to visit Job and offered their theological understanding. They concluded that Job had sinned and that God was punishing him.  One friend said,“Blessed is the one whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.”   There is truth in this statement; it just does not apply to Job’s situation.  And later, God will let Job’s friends know that they were off track when it came to their accusations about Job’s life.

God’s people living in Babylonian captivity (and all who suffer unjustly now and throughout time) certainly could relate to the extreme adversity that Job faced.  When suffering is upon us, each of us must choose how we will respond.  If our suffering is a form of correction, we are wise and even blessed to accept the Lord’s discipline and change.  If we suffer through what we feel to be unwarranted, may God give us the courage to suffer bravely.  May we keep in mind that our affliction will not last forever and that God is with us during our suffering.  It is interesting that I find myself today, doing edits on the entries of Job, on the heels of a three-day migraine. At times we can be very thankful that the Lord takes away.  His grace saw me through another headache series, and it is during these times that I rely upon Him in more intimate ways.  When the migraine is behind me, once again I’m blessed to enjoy sunlight, and noise and fully engage in the life He gives.

Job 5:17 NIV

August 8 An Appalling Blessing

Even with the hopeful conclusion of Job’s story to encourage those who reflected upon it while in captivity, there was a whole lot of lamenting among God’s people in Babylon, and for good reason.  We may have been taunted at a sports event by the opposing team but God’s people were being more than taunted; their lives were radically turned upside-down by their oppressors.  The Israelites shed tears of pain, hurt, frustration, and great loss.  Some of them wept along a river where their tormentors demanded songs of joy. In the later years of his short life Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley sang about what many of the Jewish captives experienced.  The song By the Rivers of Babylon describes weeping along a river as those in exile remembered their dearly loved Zion.

Oppression is appalling; it has to be in order to consider the last verses of Psalm 137:  O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!  Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!   This imagery is too much for me to take in.  I almost did not include this “blessing” in the book, but maybe we need to be reminded of the awful consequences of evil.  People can really hurt other people.  Sometimes it’s us being hurt, or those we love, or the weak who cannot defend themselves.  And the damage done can cause us to want to take matters into our own hands.  God, help us to hate sin of all kinds and yet love our enemies.  This is not an easy prayer but a needed one. We are blessed, God, to have You as our righteous Judge and Defender.  Vengeance is not ours, it is Yours. Amen.

Psalm 137:8-9 ESV

August 11 Make God Our Priority; Blessings Will Come

With the okay from the Persian king Cyrus, over 42,000 Jews made the long trip back to Jerusalem.  Can you image such a caravan?  After all those years of living outside of their homeland, emotions must have been high as they walked day after day, mile after mile.  Did the tired travelers sing songs of joy as they neared their beloved land after four months of walking?  Provisions had been made to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and a Jewish teacher and scribe named Ezra (still living in Babylon) recorded correspondence about the progress as well as the opposition.

Prophets Haggai (an older man) and Zechariah (a younger man) tag-teamed to get the attention of God’s people who had now returned from exile.  God said, “Give careful thought to your ways” and He pointed out how the people were busy making their own homes luxurious while the Temple still remained in ruins.  Something needed to change. What changed was the attitude of the people, and they began in earnest to start the Temple restoration project.

Prosperity would come from their commitment to go forward with building the Temple. Up until this time, crops had not produced their yields. God then said, “But from this day on I will bless you.”  And He did.  And He still does!  It is not that big of a leap for us to picture our lives and our priorities today.  Are we spinning in circles thinking that the next new thing is going to bring lasting satisfaction?  Let us be content with what we have, being sure to give attention to what draws us closer to God.  There is always blessedness in the peace we have when we are near Him, when we give careful thought to our ways.

Haggai 2:19b HCSB

August 12 May God Bless the Temple Again

The Jews needed assurance reestablishing their lives based on following God.  God gave Zechariah eight visions that provided affirmation and affected areas of their lives as a community. During this point in God’s Story, Zerubbabel was the governor of Judea and he is mentioned in the fifth vision that involved the completion of the Temple. Nothing, not even a mighty mountain, will stand in Zerubbabel’s way; it will become a level plain before him! And when Zerubbabel sets the final stone of the Temple in place, the people will shout: ‘May God bless it! May God bless it!’ ” 

They blessed God with their obedience and asked Him to bless the work of their hands as they built the second Temple. Today God’s people are not building an edifice to show loyalty to Him, but with the Holy Spirit living within us, we are the Temple of God.  We do not belong to ourselves.  God paid a high price for each of us.  We have the high calling of honoring God with our bodies, minds and our action.  Thinking about our identity and joyfully realizing that we really do belong to Him, gives us hope. From a sense of belonging we can then pursue a good direction for our actions.  May God bless us as we grow in His ways, building our character on the foundation of His love, forgiveness and peace.  In these days may God’s people pray: God, bless Your Temple, Your people working together were Your Spirit dwells! Amen.

Zechariah 4:7 NLT

August 16 Heed the Lord’s Warning; Cursed Blessings Are Not Good

Although the word “bless” is not found in the story of Esther, she herself was certainly blessed by God and by man. The beautiful chosen queen did not selfishly enjoy her elevated position but she humbly used it to bless others.  In fact, she saved the lives of the Jews who were scattered across 127 provinces.  Esther lived during a pivotal time in Israel’s history: the Temple had been rebuilt (the same Temple that Jesus would visit during His time on earth) yet many of God’s people living in Esther’s time had grown tired of doing good.  It is hard to believe that again after all God had rescued them from that they dishonored God and ignored His covenant promises, and “going to church” became a meaningless and routine task.

God warned the unethical priests through the prophet Malachi:  “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to My name,” says the Lord of hosts,“I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings.”  God’s warnings are not idle words. If rewards did not woo the leaders back, then strong correction would certainly come.

It is the same now as it was then: those in leadership positions hold a great responsibility. Peace is what God offers but evil is what many of His people seek.  Wise people honor God and listen to His Words.  If we need to make changes in our attitude toward God, His Story, and church, I pray we would do so.  He is not like some college professors who give credit to students just for attending; God desires for us to actually know Him by spending time with Him. It is true that He expects us to learn and apply what He teaches so that our lives will be lived in better, blessed ways.  When we are living blessed, may we, like Esther, live to bless others.

Malachi 2:1-2a NKJV

August 22 Bless the Lord from Everlasting to Everlasting

Celebrate with me one more time, lifting high our great God as we bless His holy name! This was a meaningful time for all who were present as God’s Story continued to unfold.  Levites joined together and prayed: “Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise.You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.”  People recited pages of God’s faithfulness throughout history and everyone at the gathering swore an oath to commit themselves to follow God.

Oh how I wanted this time of dedicated celebration to be what His people focused on during the four hundred-year silence between the Old and New Testaments.  But sadly, God’s dearly loved and chosen people drifted into neglecting Him and in time they were again living in their self-centered rebellious ways.  This tragic shift did not happen overnight but it happened. How easy it would have been, and justified too, for God to have let mankind go on down the road to destruction. Praise be to God; He does not leave us in our sin, but through His Son Jesus He offers hope upon hope when we turn to Him.

Nehemiah 9:5b-6 NIV

Continued:

Chapter 6 EMMANUEL: God with Us through Jesus