When God Sent a Famine

NOTE: Sorry that some of you received the draft of this email yesterday. Oops!


What happens when God brings a famine of His word? Take some time to meditate upon the following passages that contrast the attitude of Israel toward God’s word before and after their captivity.

Their attitudes toward God’s word BEFORE captivity:

The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy.
(2 Chronicles 36:15-16)

Their descendants’ attitudes toward God’s word AFTER captivity:

Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.
(Nehemiah 8:5-12)

What happened in between? God brought a famine!

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the LORD. “People will stagger from sea to sea and from the north even to the east; they will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, but they will not find it. “In that day the beautiful virgins and the young men will faint from thirst.
(Amos 8:11-13)

It’s the old “Don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone” teaching. God basically told them, since you don’t want My Word, I’ll take it away from you. This was a hard lesson, but Israel needed to learn it.

Here are a few final passages about hunger for God’s word:

  • I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for Your commandments (Psalms 119:131, also vs. 20,40,162,174,).
  • “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
  • I have not departed from the commandment of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).
  • Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Peter 2:1-3).

Out of the Mouth of Babes

My wife, Anna, and I were part of a camp recently, and one of my joys was to teach the 9-10 year old class. Our theme for the the week for the camp was “A Mind to Work,” based on the books Ezra and Nehemiah.

We kept reinforcing the concept that the enemies of God kept doing everything in their strength and power to fight against God’s people.

On the second or third day, one of the students said, “Well if they were doing everything in their strength to fight against God’s people, and they were not successful, then they must not have had much strength.”

Very true. The enemies of God and His work do not have any strength unless we give them the strength. What power are we letting others have over us?

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
(1 John 4:4)

With All Who Had Separated Themselves

Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together (the Passover) with all who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the LORD God of Israel (Ezra 6:21).

Imagine how awesome and exciting it must have been for the Jewish exiles to come home to Jerusalem from captivity! Even more so, now the temple has been rebuilt, and they are keeping the Passover feast. What a joyous time of celebration. The Passover feast was a memorial feast that served as a reminder of how God delivered them from Egyptian bondage.

Please take note in the above passage, it was not just the Jews who ate the Passover. There were apparently Gentiles who became proselytes to the Jewish faith and sought the God of Israel. They “separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel.” If you think about it, that is such an encouraging and powerful statement. These Gentiles left their pagan ways, they saw their ways as “filth” and wanted to get as far away from it as possible. They repented. God became first in their lives. If you go back to Moses’ law, it also required that the Gentile males had to be circumcised before keeping the Passover (Exodus 12:47-49). Now they are eating “together” with the Jews in this feast.

This is like the book of Ephesians. Jews and Gentiles both are united under one Lord. Together (Ephesians 1:10; 2:5,6,21,22; 4:16 – New King James Version).

In order to be together, both Jews and Gentiles had to separate themselves from the filth of the world. Here is a point about influence, men. The Gentiles were led to God because the Jews were living for God. The Jews had first left behind the ways of the world and the filth of the nations, and it became an example and a light for the Gentiles to follow.

We see other examples in Ezra and Nehemiah of God’s people doing the exact opposite. Instead of separating from the filth of the nations, they married into that filth and raised kids in it. Their kids became pagan instead of godly (Nehemiah 13). So here in Ezra 6 is a positive and powerful witness of what your influence can do for God. But you must first separate from the dirty-ness of the world.

Your friends and co-workers will see that change. Pray that they like these Gentiles will also want to come and seek the Lord God. May they be united and together with us at Christ’s table as we celebrate Jesus as our Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7).

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

 

And the prophets of God were with them

Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them (Ezra 5:1-2).

So the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they built and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the command of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. (Ezra 6:14)

When the Jewish exiles began their first wave of return from Babylonian/Persian captivity, they were led by Zerubbabel the governor and Jeshua the priest. Their mission was to come back and rebuild the temple of God. They laid the foundation, but then strong opposition came and the work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:24). All the men just went to working on their own homes and neglected the house of God for years (see Haggai 1).

Then two prophets were sent by God, Haggai and Zechariah, to stir up the people to complete what God called them to do. It is encouraging to me to see that both the leadership (Zerubbabel and Jeshua) and the people all listened to the prophets and got busy again doing God’s work.

Notice the second passage above. It says “they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai…and Zechariah.” The first passage above says “the prophets of God were with them, helping them.”

And the prophets of God were with them

Today, I first of all encourage the men to be a Haggai and a Zechariah. Help stir up someone with encouragement from God’s word to fulfill the work God has called them to do. It may be a fellow dad. It might be one of your kids as they are going to work and school. Your spiritual leaders at church might need some encouragement to rise up and build. Maybe your wife needs some extra encouragement today from God’s word. You see the work on the temple was successful and prospered because God’s prophets were there encouraging and teaching with God’s word. It is both powerful and effective!

Secondly, be a Zerubbabel or a Jeshua. If someone comes to you with God’s word and seeks to encourage you to rise up and build and fulfill the purpose to which God has called you, then listen to it! This work on the house of God wouldn’t have gotten started unless the leadership and people actually listened to the prophets were were trying to encourage them. Be that Zerubbabel today. Say “thank you for that encouragement, I do need to step up, rise up and build.” Have the humility to listen and to accept that maybe there are some areas in which you need some encouraging or teaching. But also have the courage to stand up and make those changes.

For Ezra Had Prepared

For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel (Ezra 7:10).

Ezra was born and raised in captivity away from the Jewish homeland of Israel. I’m sure it could have been extremely easy for Ezra to just fit it with the Babylonian and Persian culture. He could have decided to forsake his heritage and take part in the ways of the people around him.

What was Ezra doing while he grew up?

He prepared. Preparation implies that he knew he had a purpose. He was going to teach God’s law in Israel one day. But Ezra knew that in order to teach God’s word in Israel there was work to be done first.

Ezra prepared his heart. In order to teach, he must first be doing what he was going to teach. And in order to practice what he preached, he needed to seek God’s law to know what to practice.

For Ezra Had Prepared

This required a firm decision, an unwavering commitment to follow this path. Ezra prepared his mind and heart first. Long before he arrived in Jerusalem leading a group of returning exiles, he made a commitment in concrete to seek God’s law. Years before he led the people in repentance (Ezra 9-10), he was preparing his heart and mind to seek, learn and obey God’s Law. Decades prior to him being used by Nehemiah to lead the people in spiritual revival (Nehemiah 8), he was setting his heart firmly to follow God’s word.

The long and short of it is that if we want to be used by the Lord in His church, we need to like Ezra set our minds in concrete to follow God’s word and to live God’s way. Ezra’s steadfast determination to seek God’s law and do it prepared him to be in a position later to teach God’s law. This is the same for us, men.

Wear the seat of your pants out learning the word of God. Read it. Listen to it. Study it. Meditate upon it. Saturate yourselves in it. Put your heart in concrete to do what God tells you. That will prepare you just like Ezra to be a leader one day in God’s church.

Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

You may do nothing with us

Below are three passages recounting a time when someone or a group was excluded from working with God’s people. The first passage is from the days of Zerubbabel and the first return of the Jews from captivity to rebuild the temple. The second verse comes from the time of Nehemiah who brought the third group back from captivity to rebuild the walls. Finally, the passage from Acts 8 are words of Peter to Simon the Sorcerer who wanted to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit with money.

Read these three passages and meditate upon them today.

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the LORD God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:1-5).

So I answered them, and said to them, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:20).

“You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.” Then Simon answered and said, “Pray to the Lord for me, that none of the things which you have spoken may come upon me.”
(Acts 8:21-24)

In all three examples, there are those who with one heart and one soul put their minds to God’s work building God’s things. But also in all three examples there were those whose hearts were not loyal to God and they were not welcomed to join in to the great work of God. In the first two examples, the men were adversaries to the rebuilding of God’s work, and it appears that they remained that way, continually trying to oppose and frustrate the work of God. Thankfully in the final example above, Simon the Sorcerer was moved with godly sorrow and asked for the prayers of Peter (see Acts 8:22).

If you look throughout the New Testament, you will see it is full of teaching and examples showing the importance of having a group of people unified with God and with each other. It is vital to the health and growth of any organization, but especially the church of God.

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:1-5)

Let us meditate upon this in our hearts and pray that our souls are loyal to God, to His people, and to His work. May we encourage others to do the same as well.

The Power of Following

I did a Google search on “Leadership” and it gave me 757,000,000 results. I typed “Leadership” into Amazon’s search box, limiting it only to books, and received 181,305 results. It is estimated that US based corporations spent 14 Billion on leadership training last year for employees. Needless to say there is a demand for good leadership and leadership development.

But what about good followers?

In Ezra chapter 9, Ezra has returned from captivity to Jerusalem and received some terribly disturbing news. In 9:1-2 he was told, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations…indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers have been foremost in this unfaithfulness”. Ezra tells us how this report impacted him and we see it clearly in his reaction and his prayer. “When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled…and I sat appalled until the evening offering.” (9:3-4)
I suggest you read Ezra’s prayer in verses 6-15 to understand the scope of his grief. He begins in verse 6, “O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to You”. Ezra speaks of their sin and the guilt of their fathers. He understands the grace God has shown the remnant and the lovingkindness demonstrated by allowing them to return to Jerusalem. Verse 13 and 14 captures the severity of the situation, “After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since You our God have requited less than our iniquities, and have given us an escaped remnant as this, shall we again break Your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations?” Ezra concludes in verse 15 with “…we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.”
If I were to sum up Ezra’s prayer it would sound something like this… “God, we’re guilty. We deserved to be destroyed but in Your love and grace You gave us a second chance and we’ve wasted it. In all our years of captivity, we haven’t learned a thing. How can You do anything but destroy us completely?” Ezra, a great example of leadership in his own rite, seems to be in complete despair.
In chapter 10 verse 1, we see he is praying and making confession and weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God as a large assembly of the people join him.

The Power of Following

All that was just setup, the emphasis I’d like us to focus on comes from chapter 10:2-4. Shecaniah speaks up and says, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise! For this matter is your responsibility but we will be with you; be courageous and act!” If you have ever been in a difficult leadership position, overwhelmed by failure or weakness, what Shencaniah does should give you chills! Notice a few elements of his response:
  1. He acknowledges truth of the sin or obstacles; he doesn’t just blow it off.
  2. He also acknowledges the reality of the hope of the situation.
  3. He proposes a solution based on the law of God, not a manmade solution.
  4. He doesn’t take the responsibility away from Ezra, he comes along side to help bear the burden.
  5. He calls Ezra to action, “Arise!…be courageous and act!”
The result is that Ezra gets up and acts. Leadership seems to get all the attention and often we long for the power and responsibility of leadership, but a faithful follower can be a powerful force in lifting up a godly leader. As a good friend and co-worker once told me, a good future leader will already be demonstrating leadership in their current role as a follower. After all, aren’t we all just followers of the King?