Monday, November 17, 2014

"The gracious hand of our God was upon us … "

Day #325:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - November 18th

Scripture Reading:  Ezra 6 - 10 … 

For those who truly know God, nothing could be better than knowing that the gracious hand of God is upon you.  What does that mean?  It means that you know God is with you, that He is for you, that He is at work to order the circumstances of life for your good, that He is blessing you with open doors and guiding others to show you favor.  Do you know that?  Are you SEEKING that?  Ezra understood that the events going on around him were not happening by chance, but rather, were being orchestrated by God to bring blessing to the remnant who were returning from Babylon to Jerusalem and to bring glory to His Name.

A remnant had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, but their enemies had threatened them and had sent a letter to King Darius, who was now king in Persia, asking him to order the people in Judah to stop building the temple.  God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir up the remnant to continue building the temple, and now we read that God was also at work with King Darius.  After searching the archives in the treasury at Babylon he discovered the original decree that Cyrus had made regarding the rebuilding of the temple.  After reading it, Darius issued a decree:  "Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God.  Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild the house of God on its site" (6:7).  This was another foreign king whom God used to accomplish His purpose through the Jews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David!

Darius closed his decree by saying, "May God, who has caused His Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem" (6:12).  Ezra realized that this was happening because the gracious hand of God was on him and these people.  There is nothing you and I need more ... nothing that will impact your life for good to a greater extent than the gracious hand of God being upon you.  Ezra was a teacher of the Law of God.  He had seen the judgment of God that came from disobedience and idolatry, and now he was seeing the blessing of God upon those who were seeking God and who desired to be obedient to Him.  There was a clear pattern in God's dealings with His people.

Once the temple had been completed, the exiles who had returned previously celebrated the dedication of the house of God with great joy.  Then they celebrated the Passover "in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel" (6:21).  It was after this that Ezra led a second wave of exiles back to Jerusalem.  The genealogy of Ezra at the beginning of Chapter 7 makes it clear that Ezra was descended from Aaron (7:1-5), and was thus qualified to be a priest.  King Artaxerxes was also moved by God to issue a decree regarding the remnant of Judah in the form of a letter given to Ezra in which he said, "Now I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who wish to go to Jerusalem with you, may go" (7:13).  He also gave them silver and gold to be used for the purchase of sacrifices to be offered on his behalf.  This foreign king said, "Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven.  Why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and of his sons?" (7:23).

Most of the religions of that time were based on superstition and fear.  It wasn't that Artaxerxes believed in Israel's God, but that he wanted to cover all of his bases.  The men of Athens were doing the same thing when they made their altar to "an unknown god" in Acts 17.  But God still used him to allow more Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.  Ezra did what those who know God must always do:  he recognized that every good gift comes from God.  He declared, "Praise be to the LORD, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king's heart to bring honor to the house of the LORD in Jerusalem in this way ... Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me" (7:27-28).

Centuries later James would write, "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17).  Think of your life and consider all the good things God has done for you.  People often use the word "lucky" to describe the good fortune they experience when plans come together and when unexpected blessings are received.  How much better to do what Ezra did, to praise the God of heaven for His gracious hand upon you!  As Ezra searched for priests to accompany them, he rejoiced that once again God provided, "because the gracious hand of our God was on us" (8:18).

Now the people were about to set out on their long journey.  Imagine the excitement, the anticipation and, perhaps, the fear that surrounded this trip.  But note what Ezra does as they are about to set out:  he proclaims a fast, "so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children with all our possessions" (8:21).  I love what he says next:  "I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, 'The gracious hand of God is on everyone who looks to Him, but His great anger is against all who forsake Him.' So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and He answered our prayer" (8:22-23).  Ezra had openly declared his faith in God and now he needed to exercise that faith.

How often do we talk about our faith without putting it into practice and seeking the Lord?  Many who claim to believe in God take Him for granted and rarely pray or truly seek His direction and guidance.  Theirs is a "crisis faith," coming to God only when they think they need Him and they want something from Him.  Ezra's desire was to worship God and to serve Him.  He was about to lead a remnant of the people through enemy countries to a land that lay desolate ... but the gracious hand of God was upon Him!  We who know Jesus Christ, who have been born again by His Spirit, have the gracious hand of God upon US!  He is with us; He is for us; He is working in us and through us and He promises that He is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).  We don't always see it or understand it, but it's true!!

But there is one way to short-circuit God's blessings.  Just as many people don't believe obedience brings blessing, they don't believe disobedience brings discipline ... but it does.  As Ezra and the exiles traveled, Ezra writes, "The hand of our God was on us, and He protected us from enemies and bandits along the way.  So we arrived in Jerusalem" (8:31).   They arrived there and offered sacrifices and worshiped the Lord.  But after all of this had been done, the leaders of the people came to Ezra and reported to him that some of the exiles had intermarried with the peoples around them.  "They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them.  And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness" (9:2).

While this sounds arrogant and prejudiced, this was God's command for His holy people.  "Holy" did not mean that they were perfect or righteous, but that they were "set apart" for God.  They were HIS people.  They were now in danger of God's judgment once again ... after all they had been through because of the idolatry of their fathers, they were following the same path!  What could Ezra do?  He could do what he had done before, he could pray.  So he prayed, "O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to You, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens" (9:6).  Listen to his testimony:

"But now, for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in His sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage.  Though we are slaves, our God has not deserted us in our bondage.  He has shown us kindness ... He has granted us new life ... He has given us a wall of protection" (9:8-9).  Then Ezra confessed the sins of the people before the LORD, his God.  As he was praying a large crowd of people gathered with him and wept and prayed for God's guidance.  What should they do?  Were they sincere in their humility and their desire to repent?  Would God forgive?

They determined to make a covenant before God and to send away the foreign women and their children.  This sounds strange to us.  How could this be God's will?  Simply, these were His people.  He had commanded them NOT to do exactly what they did.  The Savior would come from THIS people!  So God disciplines those He loves!  (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:6).  All the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered together and they separated themselves from their foreign wives in obedience to the LORD, their God.  It may seem like a strange place for Ezra to end his writing, but what better place could there be than obedience and faithfulness to God?

How few people today take seriously the consequences of sin?  How few people draw near to God in humble repentance, confessing their sin and seeking God's forgiveness?  Yet it is here that God's richest blessings are found.  It is at the cross of Jesus that we can find the assurance that the gracious hand of our God is upon US!  It is in humbly seeking the Lord that we find His grace and His mercy through faith and obedience.  May we learn from Ezra how important it is to have the gracious hand of our God upon us!

"My Father in heaven, I confess that all too often I have failed to take seriously your discipline and have disobeyed Your commands by doing what You have told me not to do and NOT doing what You have told me is right and good.  Pour out Your Spirit afresh, O Lord, that I may pursue Your blessing through faith, through prayer and through obedience.  I love You, LORD, my God, my King, my Savior!  May Your gracious hand be upon me as I give You my all and seek to serve You, giving thanks for all of Your gifts and resting in Your love and grace, in Jesus' name, Amen"

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