History: The God of the Past, Present and Future
History is God's story. It is His-story. In the book of Isaiah God says "...I am the Lord, and there is no other, I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord who does all these things." (Is 44:6-7.) God clearly orchestrated events in the time of Nehemiah and Ezra. But he orchestrates the events of our lives also. God has written each person into His story. To gain a deeper understanding of events in Nehemiah's time, we will look at three things: the past, the present (Nehemiah's time) and the future (our time).
The past: The people of the God who keeps promises
In Genesis 11 the Lord calls Abraham, telling him to leave his country and people and go to a land that God has promised him. God promises Abraham also that a great nation will come from him, that all the families of the earth shall be blessed through him. However, Abraham’s offspring will be afflicted for 400 years and then God promises to rescue them. This came to pass through Moses, when he lead the people out of Egypt to the promised land. God said to Moses that if the people of Israel: “indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession, among all people, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex19:3-6). After conquering the land through Joshua and the Judges, God fulfilled the promise of land to His people through King David, a man after God's own heart. God promises David that He will set up David's throne forever (2 Sam 7:16).
David's son, King Solomon caused the kingdom of Israel to be divided because of his love for foreign women. God had warned him not to enter into marriage with them, for they will turn his heart to their gods. But Solomon did not listen and the result was that Solomon' heart was not wholly true to the Lord. So the Lord was angry with Solomon and said: "I will tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant, but for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but will tear it out of the hand of your son. However I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.”(1 Kings 11:13)
The kingdom was divided into the 10 northern tribes, known as Israel; and the 2 southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah, known as Judah. The books of Kings and Chronicles cover the history of this period. Kings was being written as the events were occurring, as the people needed an explanation for why they were sent into exile. Whereas Chronicles was written long after the event had passed. They already knew why they had been sent into exile, and needed to be encouraged and sent back to the land to establish the city walls and rebuild the temple. In reading these accounts, notice how faithful God is to his promises. God promised that David “shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel” (Jer 33:17), so in Judah the line of succession of the throne is from father to son. In contrast, the bloodlines of Israel, were at times completely wiped out due to their kings' wickedness. Israel was repeatedly warned by God's prophets to repent of their wickedness and idolatry, yet they did not listen and God's anger was kindled against them and He sent the northern tribes into exile to Assyria in 722 B.C., where they ceased to exist as a nation.
Judah, the southern tribe did not do much better. After God repeatedly sent prophets, warning them, calling them to repentance for their idol worship and their disobedience, God eventually sent them into exile too, during the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon in the year 586 B.C. The ultimate punishment then was to lose the Promised Land.
Yet God is merciful and in Isaiah 9 He gives hope. He promises that one day a Son will be born, a Prince of Peace, who will sit on the throne of David and rule His kingdom forever.
The present: The God that is just yet merciful
Judah broke the covenant with God, and so God punished Judah because of their disobedience. The prophet Isaiah likens their breach of faith to that of a prostitute (Is 1:21-26). Instead of being a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, God's treasured possession; they were murderers, rebels, greedy and oppressors of the poor. They looked nothing like God's people, in fact they looked like every other nation around them. So God sent King Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon to overrun Judah.
There were three deportations of people from Judah to Babylon. The first was the deportation of the royal court and the rulers (including Daniel). The Babylonians believed that if the leaders were removed the region would be easily controlled. But the people of Judah still rebelled against Babylon, and in the second deportation the craftsmen and merchants were taken. Even with the moneymakers gone, the people of Judah still rebelled and this resulted in the third deportation. The Babylonians invaded and razed the temple to the ground. They destroyed everything. Jerusalem was deserted and the tribes of Benjamin and Judah were taken away to Babylon.
Yet, God is merciful and did not abandon His people. God is never taken by surprise because of the acts of man, for they are directed by His hand. Isaiah 45 is a prophecy regarding Cyrus (the king of Persia, who caused the exiles to return to Jerusalem), this prophecy was made in the 700's BC. The return of the exiles took place in 538 BC, 150 years after Isaiah prophesied.
As you read Isaiah 45 note the sovereignty of God as He directs history. “I am… I will… I form… I made… I have.” This is God's story. He prohesied Cyrus by name over a hundred years before he was born. He equipped Cyrus to do all that He had purposed for him to do, and all while Cyrus did not even worship the Lord.
Also note the merciful character of God. The fulfillment of these prophesies were meant to awaken the faith of God's people. Does it not awaken yours? When you see how faithful God is? When God gave Moses the tablets of stone He told Moses “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty..” (Ex 34:6-7). God made another promise that, even though He sent His people into exile, He will return them to the promised land after 70 years. In Nehemiah this promise was fulfilled. Numbers 23 remind us that “God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind, has He said, and will He not do it, Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?” (Num 23:19)
The future: Your place in this story
What does all of this have to do with you? How do you fit into this marvelous story? What we learn from Old Testament history is that God is holy, and He is sovereign over history. He sets up kings and brings them down again. He created man to have fellowship with Him, not out of need or desire for company, but out of love. Yet man rebelled and sin separated him from fellowship with God, but God still had a plan, a rescue plan, conceived even before time began. This plan was realized through history, the unfolding of God's marvelous plan of rescue, to draw a people to Himself, a treasured possession, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests.
But time and again this people showed their inability to obey God's Word for their hearts were hearts of stone. So In Ezekiel 22 God makes this promise "I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezek 36:26)
In due time then through the line of David, a Son was born, a Prince of Peace - Jesus Christ - who bore the punishment that sin required, so that once again God's treasured possession was restored to Him. And now God's people are from all tribes, tongues and nations as we read in 1 Pet 2:9 “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light, Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
And how do you become one of these children of promise? Not by your good works, or by keeping a law, but by placing your faith in Jesus Christ. He became a curse for you, so that in Him you might receive the promised Spirit.
He takes out the heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh, a heart after God. This has been God's plan all along: To redeem a people for His own possession and for His glory. And if you are a believer, then you have been part of God's plan all along.
So how is this information going to help you this week or year?
Are you struggling with sin? With temptation? With guilt? Then meditate on God's character. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. He is not a taskmaster, waiting to whip you when you mess up. He is a loving Father, ready to forgive when you repent. But don't let that be an invitation to sin, presuming on God's grace. Rather let that lead you to strive toward holy living in this present world.
Are you overwhelmed by trials or suffering, uncertain about the future? Then dwell on God's faithfulness in Scripture. He is a God who keeps his promises. Be comforted that God is sovereign and in complete control over all circumstances. And also remember to look at the bigger picture. This life is but a moment in comparison to eternity.
Lastly, rejoice in this great God. You are part of His story. Don't be entangled by those things that so easily ensnare. Fight for holiness - remember you are God's treasured possession - His church, for which Christ died.