Perhaps in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, the people are truly mourning their sin with a contrite heart. Fasting would involve primarily abstaining from food, save water. Sackcloth was the typical garb of mourning, in a similar way to how we wear black today. The sin for which they are repenting and mourning was the sin of intermarriage. Remember, the sin was not interracial marriage, even though that was perhaps the way it looked on the outside. The sin was marrying those who worshiped false gods; the sin was marrying people who hated the God you purported to worship.
We see in this passage a picture of repentance. They devoted themselves to understanding the Book of the Law. Otherwise, do you know what you’re repenting of? They spent much of the day praying their confessions. The priests are leading the people in prayer and confession, which had been missing from Israelite life for generations.
The prayer of the priests is a description of God’s redemptive behavior among the people. The gospel is worked out in history. In seeing the history of God’s faithfulness and the people’s faithlessness, we understand God’s justice and mercy. God was patient with his people, but as a loving father, he disciplines those whom he loves.
The priests and civil leaders renew the covenant made at Sinai. It’s not a new covenant, but a renewal of the one they had broken time and time again. By signing their names to the covenant, they act as witnesses to the obligations each of them made that day. They commit to keeping the obligations faithfully.
History is important to God’s people. We see various genealogies throughout Scripture, one of which is here toward the end of Nehemiah. This holds these individuals and families accountable to the renewal of the covenant.
The people and their leaders have repented of their sins, and they are ready to dedicate the completed wall. They celebrate with music and purity rituals. There are singers and instrumentalists galore. The priests officially begin their priestly duties in the temple, according to their scriptural obligations. The rest of the foreigners are removed from Israelite life.
But it’s not as if there is no sin in the camp. Nehemiah is off on business back in Babylon, and in his absence, two priests use sacred portions of the temple for their own housing. Instead of storing the offerings of the people, Tobiah was now using that room as his own living quarters. In his righteous anger, Nehemiah pitches all of Tobiah’s belongings out into the streets. He makes sure that every piece of the offerings are replaced.
Not only that, but the Levites are not being provided for. They were supposed to stay in the temple area, but because they have to eat, they went to their homes to tend to their own fields. Nehemiah rights this wrong and fixes whatever system problem had led to this neglect. Beyond not caring for the priests, the people are not observing the Sabbath. Nehemiah shuts the gates on the wall so that no one can come in or out or do any kind of trade on the Sabbath. There are still those people who have not put away their foreign wives and children, and Nehemiah has just about had it. He has done all that he can, and his only plea is that God would remember his attempts at bringing righteousness to the city.
The story of Esther is a remarkable demonstration of God’s providence. Part of this remarkable nature is that the name of God is never mentioned; he is at work behind the scenes. Does this not reflect our own lives? Esther, Mordecai, and all the rest go about their days simply trusting that all things work for the good of those who love God. We don’t receive direct revelation from the throne room of God; he speaks through his written word. Today, “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed,” as Peter says (2 Peter 1:19). The book of Esther was probably written mid-to-late 400s B.C., which would be a short time after the events described in the book took place.
The point of the book is to tell the story of how God, through select individuals, delivered his people from the wickedness of those who wanted to destroy them. This deliverance resulted in the festival of Purim, which some Jews still celebrate today. Until the temple is destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, along with the entire city of Jerusalem, this is the final attempt to wipe out the Jews from the face of the planet. Haman, the antagonist, has his heart set to destroy them.
Throughout the Old Testament, we read about the shadows, or the types, of the real things. All of these things makes the reader look forward to the coming of the Messiah. This is called typology (big surprise). Typology refers to any person, place, or event that is designed by God to lead the reader to see more of Christ’s person and work. One example is kingship; the dynasty of the Israelite kings is promised to Abraham, worked out in a covenant with David, all to create this expectation of a future king that would bring an end to sin and restore righteousness. If Haman eradicates the Jewish people, wouldn’t that nullify God’s promises to Abraham and covenant with David?
Another theme throughout the book is that of a remnant. Esther is living during the time of the Persian exile. The Jews are in Persia (formerly Babylon) because of their sin and God’s wrath being poured out on them (see how often God says he will pour out his wrath and judgment on Israel in the book of Ezekiel). But God always promises that there will be a restoration, which he will bring about through a remnant, or a select group, of Jews. Esther will be a central figure in how God keeps a remnant alive.
Perhaps the most famous line of the whole book is 4:14, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, is encouraging Esther to leverage her high position to help her people from perishing. We see in Esther a woman who is courageous and deeply devoted to the things of God. She responds, “Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (4:16b). There often comes a time when obeying God means disobeying men, even those men whom God has put in place as rulers. But that is almost never the first reaction a believer should take. Remember, up until this point in the story, Esther has been a faithful Jew living in the king’s court.
Esther’s bravery and trust in God’s promises was all she needed to do the right thing, despite the uncertain outcome. That’s an important lesson. God expects us to live according his ways, and he also expects us to leave the outcome of living according to his ways in his hands.
Esther and Mordecai prepare a plan to trap Haman in his own words and put an end to the edict to kill all the Jews. Their plan works, and king Ahasuerus revokes Haman’s decree. Esther is given Haman’s property, and Ahasuerus even lets Mordecai write the decree that will spare the Jews. Not only that, but the Jews are given permission to destroy anyone who attempts to follow Haman’s defunct decree. This institutes the festival of Purim, which is a word meaning “lots”. The name is an ironic take on the fact that Haman cast lots in Esther 3:7 to decide which date would be the destruction of the Jews. Today, Jews celebrate Purim to remember God’s deliverance from the wickedness of Haman.
Job may have been the first book of the Bible to actually have been recorded in writing. It never mentions any of the patriarchs, the Mosaic law, or anything related to Israel. The author does, however use the covenant name of God, YHWH. His wealth is counted in how much livestock he has, and he acted as a family priest instead of taking his family to a priest. This much tells us Job lived before or during the time of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), while the book was written afterward. There is even a paraphrase of Job, called a Targum, that was written about 200 years before Jesus. Job is an ancient book about an ancient person.
The book focuses on the struggle of good and evil, how bad things can happen to good people, and most importantly, God’s role in evil. Perhaps most interesting is how Satan is able to present himself to God. How can this be? How is Satan able to speak with God? Didn’t he fall from heaven?
We need to be ready to believe whatever Scripture puts before us. One of the subtle ways the Enlightenment continues to have an impact on faith is the way in which the church often avoids the supernatural realm. Another way is to flatten the supernatural realm into neat and tidy packages when Scripture is not as exhaustive as we wish it to be, as if the way we understand the scientific method can be applied to the realm of heaven.
There are those who say that Scripture gives us a clear articulation of the fall of Satan in passages such as Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, but I believe those are about the king of Tyre, which is exactly what those passages say. To make them an allegory about Satan when God tells the prophets that they are really about earthly kings is to remove from their proper context. Especially in the book Ezekiel, chapter 28 comes in a long line of “laments” about earthly kings God will judge because of their behavior toward Israel. Why is this particular lament pulled out to supposedly be about Satan while the rest are not?
It is best to simply read Job at face value and see that the accuser, Satan, is given permission by God to take away all that Job loves. Not a single event in the book of Job takes place apart from the will of God. Not only is Satan in God’s presence, but it is God who actually brings up Job to Satan. Satan tells God that the only reason Job loves God is because God protects him against evil. To show that the accuser is wrong, God permits him to take all his belongings and his family, but he cannot take Job’s life. Job’s livestock are killed as collateral in a siege, and his children are killed in a natural disaster. Job begins to mourn, but he also begins to worship. In the beginning, Job is a good man who does not blame God for the works of Satan.
Paul has concluded his inner monologue about the relationship of law and gospel. Only if we understand that the law cannot save but only condemn does 8:1 make sense: there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. The law of Moses condemns, but the law of the Spirits sets free. Therefore, those set free in the Spirit should live accordingly. The indwelling presence of the Spirit is the proof of regeneration. And if we have the Spirit, we will inherit future blessings even if we suffer in the present. And if we are aware of our future blessings, we will think differently about our present suffering.
Suffering is likened to childbirth (no surprise there). It can feel like you’re falling apart from the inside out, but the end result is new life. Not only humanity, but all of creation is groaning as if in labor. But Paul says the most amazing thing—the pains of childbirth have been going on “until now” (8:22). The new creation has begun! The adoption paperwork has begun! We live in the overlap. There is yet to come a glory that makes our present sufferings seem like a hangnail. But God is not so cruel to tell us that our present sufferings aren’t real sufferings. He has sent the Spirit not only to give us our second birth but also to help us in our weakness and suffering.
In Romans 8:29-30, we read what’s been called “the golden chain of redemption”. God’s foreknowledge leads to predestination, then to calling, then to justification, then to glorification. This is meant to be a comfort to believers, realizing that God has been at work in salvation since before the creation of the world. What will you possibly do to foil a divine plan that’s an eternity in the making when you’re just a blip on time’s radar? What could possibly separate us from the love of God?
Beginning in Romans 9, we start to move into hotly debated territory. The question that Paul is now answering is, “What is Israel’s place today?” He has had an inner monologue about a Jew struggling with the law and the gospel, he’s assured his readers that the gospel is God’s plan, and now he’s addressing how God’s sovereign decree does not relegate the Jew to a nobody.
What do we do with the fact that Israel has failed so many times? Paul assures us that physical descent does not assure anyone of regeneration. He argues this from biblical history. God promised Abraham a child, which would be Isaac. But Abraham got impatient and had a son with Sarah’s mistress. Ishmael was not promised anything, because God’s promise was through Abraham and Sarah. Even then, God chose to bless Jacob instead of Esau. The point in both of those stories is that God’s mercy is his divine choice. No one is owed mercy, otherwise it’s a payment. Divine election is as old as Genesis.
So if God has made his decision, what role does free will play? Paul answers with a rhetorical question. Does a lump of clay get to tell the potter what to do? Doesn’t the potter have the right to make utensils for both the temple and the home, for sacred and for secular use? In the same way, God has in mind a way of bringing glory and honor to his name, as well as justice and mercy to his people. If the Jews were approaching the law in order to be made righteous, they simply proved themselves to be vessels for destruction. If they approached the law knowing that God saves by grace through faith, then they would not stumble. Christ, the object of faith throughout every generation, is the end of the law.
Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the law. That’s why Paul can say that everyone who approached Christ in faith is saved and is not under the law of Moses as a condition of the new covenant. Because the Jews had the law, the covenants, the kings, the sacrifices, etc., Paul says that they have had the gospel preached to them. “Have they not heard? Indeed they have.” They have heard from the prophets time and time again, yet they turned to their own ways.
But God has always had remnant to which he would keep his promises. Paul reminds us that God has always preserved a segment, a remnant, for himself. Elijah believed he was the last true Israelite, but God tells him that he is one of 7,000. There is even now a remnant of Jews, and like the Gentiles, they were chosen by grace (11:5). Not everyone who has their lineage back to Abraham can claim spiritual heritage. Only the elect among the Israelites can hang their lives on those promises.
There are two extremes when it comes to the relationship of the church and Israel. One extreme is called supercessionism, held primarily by those who also hold to covenant theology, and it says that the church has completely superseded Israel as God’s people. There is no further role for Israel to play in redemptive history. That position is difficult to maintain mainly because Paul is so adamant that there is a remnant left in Israel. And for Paul to argue that the Gentiles are included in Israel makes it seem that Israel is still a body of people.
The other extreme is that the church and Israel are completely separate entities with no overlap whatsoever. This view is held almost entirely by dispensationalists. Classic dispensationalism teaches that the church is a pause in God’s plan, that Jesus offered the Jews the millennial kingdom during the time of the incarnation, but they rejected it, so Jesus wiped his feet of the Jews and began a ministry to the Gentiles. Hyper-dispensationalism even believes that Jews and Gentiles have a different eternal destiny, with the Jews on the earth forever and the church in heaven forever. I believe this position has zero warrant for the same reasons as supercessionism.
Paul speaks of Gentiles being grafted in to the vine of Israel, meaning that the church receives the richness and glory of being an Israelite. There is a remnant of national Israel yet to be redeemed, and the church is considered part of the true Israel. Not all Israel is Israel, as Paul says. But also, by virtue of being in union with Christ, the true Israelite, the church becomes the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). The church is not a pause in God’s plan of redemption, as if God didn’t see it coming. God is sovereign. But neither has the church supplanted Israel as God’s chosen people. There is only a “partial hardening” (11:25) of Israel until every elect Gentile is saved. For Paul, this was a reason for worship (11:33-35).
The fact that not one believer, Jew or Gentile, will be lost or fall through the cracks means that we should worship God along with Paul. As the Jews worshiped through bloody sacrifices, so Paul tells us to be living sacrifices. We are a living sacrifice not by harming or killing ourselves but by living to God in perpetual renewal. Only then do we live lives that are pleasing to God. A living sacrifice, motivated by the generous salvation to both Jews and Gentiles, leads to serving the other believers, both Jews and Gentiles. That’s how we know we are dealing with a true believer, by seeing how we serve each other. We don’t return evil for evil, but good for evil. Good will overcome evil.