understanding the bible
The most important thing any Christian can do is to read and study the Bible. The book of Proverbs informs us that, "Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom." It is the Bible that is the primary source of that wisdom. Wisdom can be defined as being able to see things from God's perspective, and that is what the Bible shows us. The Bible, then, is the Creator's handbook for living, but it's a long book and may seem a little daunting. Why are there so many different books? Who wrote them and why? What does one book have to do with another? The purpose of this section of our website is to help you make sense of the various books that make up the Bible. It is our sincere hope that reading and thinking through the description of each book will enable you to see how the entire Bible is a unified whole. As you begin this study, keep in mind that the Bible is a progressive revelation, each book building on the ones that come before, beginning at creation and culminating with the eternal Kingdom of God.
the divisions of the bible
The Bible consists of 66 separate books, divided into two testaments: the Old Testament and the New Testament. (The word 'testament' is another word for a covenant, which is an agreement between two or more parties. In the case of the Bible, it refers to God's two major covenants with man.) The Bible is further divided into groups:
The Books of the Law (Pentateuch) - Genesis through Deuteronomy
The first five books are sometimes referred to as the Pentateuch, which literally means "five books of law." The Jews refer to these five books as Torah. They were most likely penned by Moses, with the exception of the final chapter of Deuteronomy, which was written following the death of Moses.
The Books of the Prophets - Joshua through Ruth
These books are so named because they detail the development of the nation of Israel from their entry into Canaan, or the Promised Land, under Joshua through the centuries of the nation under various kings, the division of the nation into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah), the Babylonian captivity, and the return of the nation to their home. These books are considered as prophetic as well as historical. History is prophetic due to its teaching value. To read prophecy from God's perspective is to see how He works in this present world, as well as learning the basic principles of human life. Ruth is sometimes included with the books of poetry.
The Books of Poetry (Hagiographa) - Job through the Song of Solomon
You will occasionally find the Song of Solomon referred to as Canticles, particularly in older writings.
The Major Prophets - Isaiah through Daniel
These books are classified as the major prophets due to the abundance of the prophecies given through the prophets.
The Minor Prophets - Hosea through Malachi
Hosea is sometimes categorized with the major prophets. These books end with Malachi, the last of the prophets before the Intertestamental Period, the time between the writing of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Gospels - Matthew through John
The gospel accounts together describe the earthly ministry of Jesus. Each is written from a different perspective. The gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, because their content is similar and all three follow roughly the same timeline. John is unique in that it presents Jesus as the Son of God.
The Acts of the Apostles
The book of Acts gives us the story of the early years of the Christian church and its spread throughout the Roman Empire. The most prominent characters are Peter and Paul.
Paul's Epistles - 1 Corinthians through Philemon
An epistle is a letter. Paul was the apostle who was charged by the Lord with the responsibility of taking the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). He established churches in numerous cities. The letters in this section were what were known as 'circular' letters, because each was written to a specific group, then copied and circulated among the other churches. Philemon is different in that it was written to a single individual, although it was circulated as were Paul's other letters.
The Book of Hebrews
For our purposes, we will classify Hebrews by itself. Its author is unknown. It is an explanation of the gospel written primarily for the Jews to explain the way in which Jesus and the gospel are the fulfillment of the Old Testament. It provides an excellent bridge between Christ and the Old Testament law.
The General Epistles - James through Jude
The General Epistles were written by the men whose names are attached to the letters: James (the half brother of Jesus); Peter; John; and Jude (another of Jesus' half brothers).
The Book of Revelation
The final book of the New Testament provides us with specific messages from the resurrected Christ to various churches (chapters 1-3). The remainder of the book gives us a broad outline of future events through the creation of the new heaven and Earth.
Just how important is the book of Genesis? The answer to that question is that it's the foundation of the Christian faith. There are Christians who view the book as a collection of stories, but they fail to understand just how necessary Genesis is. The main characters are Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Their stories do far more than simply provide us with Sunday School lessons; they are important because of the truths they teach us. To ignore those truths is like expecting a building to remain standing after the foundation has been destroyed. Genesis contains the basic truths of theology (the study of God); cosmology (the study of the universe); anthropology (the study of man); sociology (the study of society); hamartiology (the doctrine of sin); and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).
None of the those topics is dealt with in detail; rather they are presented in what we might call a general, introductory sense. Consider for example the explanation for where everything--the universe, our own planet Earth, man, animals, mountains, seas, etc.--came from. In its opening statement, Genesis makes the sweeping claim, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Ignore that and you're left with the often ridiculous attempts made by man to explain the origin of everything. If we deny that man was brought into existence by the will and act of God, then we are left with the idea that man is an animal and nothing more. If we deny the suggestions in Genesis that man's salvation is possible only through God's intervention, then we might as well completely forget the idea of salvation, because it's either unnecessary or it's an impossibility.
The most important lesson we learn from Genesis is the relationship that exists between God and man. It takes the remainder of the Bible to explain that relationship more thoroughly, but it is Genesis that reveals man's origin, the reason for his separation from God, and God's desire and intention to restore the original relationship. When we read God's statement, "Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness", that God gave man dominion over the earth, and that He placed man in circumstances that constantly reminded him of his relationship with God (think about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), then we're reading nothing less than the deepest truths about our lives. Because the first man lost that essential relationship with his Creator because of his disobedience, sin and sorrow became our constant companions.
Genesis then leads us to a second truth. Not only puis man related to God as the result of creation and God's government over that creation, the secret that allows us to fully realize what our lives were intended to be is faith--faith that is expressed in obedience. Consider the following scenario from chapter three. The serpent asked Eve, "Has God said, you shall not eat of any tree of the garden?"; then he contradicted God by saying, "You shall not die." Do you see what happened? For the first time ever man questioned God's word and His goodness. His confidence in his Creator was shaken: he listened to the serpent's slander against God, his faith crumbled, and he disobeyed. Faith and obedience always go hand in hand. When trust failed, obedience ceased. We thus learn the foundational truth that man can only realize his true life by trusting God and living his life according to His commandments.
The chief lesson we glean from Genesis is that faith is the basis--the only basis--upon which God can work His will in man, and the only basis upon which man can realize God's will for him. Man can only find himself (and how many times have we heard someone say, "I'm just trying to find myself"?) and the true meaning of his own life when he places his confidence in God and obeys Him with unwavering loyalty.
Exodus continues the narrative begun in Genesis. Keep in mind that the Bible is a progressive revelation. In Genesis we find the story of creation, we learn about man's relationship to God (He is man's Creator and King), and we discover that faith is the means by which we can discover our true selves. But faith must be accompanied by obedience. When we find our willingness to obey weakening, we have to recognize that our faith in God's word and goodness are wavering. Then we wind up following our own inclinations, inclinations that are always at odds with God's thoughts, if not in open hostility to them.
Exodus moves beyond those basic lessons and teaches us the methods God uses to accomplish His will and purposes in human history. It is only when we begin to see God's hand in history that it begins to make sense. If we look at Exodus as a record of what men have done, then what we find is failure. Moses is revered as one of the greatest leaders in all of history, but that is because God was working through him. Moses himself was weak and a failure. In Exodus chapter 4, verses 10-14, Moses told God he couldn't speak for him, that he didn't have the ability, failing to understand that God would have given him the necessary ability. That was his cowardice. When he decided to take matters into his own hands and somehow deliver the Hebrew people from their Egyptian oppressors, he wound up committing murder. Then he fled. There we see both his failure and his weakness. If we look at Aaron, the brother of Moses, we find a man who on his own was a total failure. If we then think about the Hebrew people, we find failure again and again. The basic problem was the same in every case. They were given revelations by God, but they were unable to rise to the level of those revelations because they had no real understanding of what it meant to depend upon God.
That is the human view of history. Let's look at it now from another perspective, that is, as a record of God's doings. What we find is a slow, steady, continual line of progress. And that is the key to understanding history: what looks to us like human progress has always been the result of God's grace and patience.
Exodus shows us God's methods in their earliest stages. We see two: He works through nations and He works through individuals. As we study the history of Israel, we find that God's method has been to embody His truth in a nation so that other nations can see the beauty, the depth, and the wisdom in ordering national life according to the principles laid down by our God Himself. Anyone who fails to see God's hand in the history of our own United States can never really understand who and what we are and have been. Admittedly, our history is anything but unblemished--slavery, a Civil War, the shameful treatment of native peoples, political corruption, etc.--but those things are all the result of man's willful disobedience. But through it all, God's purposes are moving forward.
God also works through individuals. We see two outstanding examples of this in two men found in Exodus: Moses and--this may surprise you--Pharoah, the king of Egypt. Let's think first about Moses. He was strong, capable, and he was obedient. Now contrast the Egyptian king with Moses. Pharoah was also strong, he was capable, but he was rebellious. In both cases, God allowed each man, both of whom were leaders, to choose the direction he would take. In neither case did God leave either of them entirely free to follow the dictates of his own lusts and desires; rather, He attempted through patience and persuasion to direct their choices. That teaches us the primary lesson about human responsibility: choice. Even though Moses had his faults, even though his personal history leaves a lot of room for improvement, nevertheless God was able to elevate him to a level of dignity and even nobility of character because he chose to submit himself to God's rule. Pharoah, on the other hand, although he was strong and capable like Moses, chose the path that led to destruction because he refused the opportunities given to him by God.
Exodus teaches us two other lessons. The first comes out of the things we have already thought about, and that is that God is sovereign. As we are reminded in Proverbs 16:9, "A man's heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps." There we see God's sovereignty overruling when man's plans interfere with the outworking of His purposes. He gives us room to choose, but never to the disruption of His own plans. Psalm 97:2 informs us that "righteousness and judgment are the foundation of His throne." We see both of those at work in Exodus. Righteousness is simply a matter of what is right. In fact, that is the essential meaning of the Hebrew word. The entire book of Exodus provides us with the message that God's government is always right.
That second word--judgment--helps us to understand the word 'right.' The Hebrew word translated as 'judgment' means a 'verdict', as in the verdict handed down by a judge in a court trial. The basic idea is that of discrimination. Discrimination is presently used in a negative sense, as in one group of people exercising discrimination against another group. But that is only one slice of the pie. To discriminate means to choose between two (or more) things with the intention of making a right choice. Man tries to make right choices, but his choices are tainted by self-interest. God always chooses rightly. The idea is that in God's governing in the affairs of men, His method is always to choose based upon what is right. As the God of judgment, He exalted Moses and He cast out Pharoah.
There is one final major lesson we glean from Exodus, and that is God's method for saving men, for restoring man to his original relationship to God. Remember that the lesson we learned from Genesis is that faith is the only way for man to find his true self. Exodus demonstrates that our faith must express itself in two ways: worship and obedience. Worship isn't simply a matter of going to church; it means putting God at the center of our lives. In so doing, we demonstrate His worth to us. (Interestingly, the original English word was worthship, a demonstration of God's worth and value to man). The Ark of the Covenant was only a box, although a very pretty one, but its value was that it symbolized the truth that God must be enthroned in the very center of a our lives. When the Israelites were encamped during the wilderness wanderings, all the tribes were arranged around the tabernacle. At the very heart of the tabernacle was the Holy of Holies, in the middle of which was the Ark. What a picture that presents!
If God is really at the center of my life, then I'll obey; if not, then I won't obey. It's that simple. Regardless of what I may claim, our lives always demonstrate our true relationship with my God.
The book of Leviticus can almost be viewed as the second part of Exodus. Exodus ends with the covering cloud, Leviticus begins with Lord calling to Moses "from the tabernacle of meeting." That makes sense to us only if we are familiar with Exodus.
We need to continually remind ourselves that the Bible is a progressive revelation. Doctrines and thoughts are introduced in the earliest books, but they are not fully developed until further revelation is given. The development continues throughout and we piece doctrines together almost like we would a puzzle. Leviticus is primarily concerned with worship, but while it reveals the underlying necessity for worship, we can't fully understand it until Christ.
Concerning worship, Leviticus explains the necessity of worship by its recognition of two things: sin and redemption. Sin results in exclusion from God, from the knowledge of God, and from fellowship with God. The whole structure of worship as presented in Leviticus emphasizes man's distance from God as the result of sin. Something has to occur that will allow man to return to God.
Something that is emphasized again and again throughout Leviticus is God's absolute holiness. The Hebrew word that is translated as "holy", although other words are sometimes used, appears over 150 times in the twenty-seven chapters of Leviticus--far more than in any other book of scripture. It allows us to see clearly why sin separates man from God: because of God's absolute holiness, sinful man is excluded from His presence. When you look at it that way, sin at root is wrong done to God. David acknowledged that fact in Psalm 51:4, the psalm written after having committed adultery with Bath-sheba and then arranging for the death of her husband, Uriah: "Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight." As terrible as the wrongs done to Bath-sheba and Uriah were, David understood that his sins were fundamentally wrongs done to a holy God.
It is only as we understand the terrible depths of our sin that we can really appreciate our redemption. As we read through Leviticus, with all its specific instructions concerning worship, it should highlight two things for us: first, the idea that God has a plan to restore man; and, second, that God would somehow work out that plan. (Bear in mind that redemption did not come about through keeping the law. As Paul points out in Galatians 3:21-25, that was never the intention of the Old Testament law. It was given to point man to Christ--the only means of redemption.)
So what was the reason for all the offerings? The offerings provided a means by which man could approach a holy God, although approach had to be through the priest. The many laws of separation (e.g., not wearing a garment made from different materials; not boiling an animal in its mother's milk) pointed to the necessary condition for approach to God. The feasts of consecration revealed the benefits of approaching God. The idea that runs throughout is that because of his sin, man has been excluded from the presence of God, but God has provided a means of approach because He wants man to do so.
All the sacrifices of animals that were made were of sinless life. No animal has ever sinned. So why would God require the painful deaths of those animals? There is no pain suffered, whether by animal or human, of which God isn't completely aware. "The whole creation groans and travails in pain together...The Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered - Romans 8:21, 27). God cannot be separated from the universe He has created. He was more conscious and aware of the animal's suffering than was the animal itself. What we have in the deaths of those sinless animals was the fact of God's passion in the presence of our sin, which finally resulted in His own suffering and death in the person of Christ. We can be guilty of a too careless attitude toward sin. The death of Christ was so terrible that we can't begin to fathom the incredible depth of His suffering made necessary by our sin.
So what does all of this say to us? Even though the word never once appears in the book of Leviticus, we can't help but realize the incredible love that compelled God to do, at infinite cost to Himself, what was necessary to provide a way for man to return to Him. Our sin smites God in the face just as surely as the Roman soldier struck Jesus in the face, and it wounds Him to the depths of His heart. Yet in spite of that, His love is so great that He is willing to set it all aside if only we will return to Him by means of the redemption which He has provided--indeed, which He alone could provide.
The tabernacle had been completed and God's glory had descended. That occurred on the first day of the first month of the second year. Exactly one month later, God commanded Moses to number the people prior to entering Canaan; so one month has passed since the end of Exodus and the beginning of Numbers.
At the outset of the book of Numbers, we find the Israelites in the same location--on the boundary of the land of Canaan at Kadesh-Barnea. When the book closes, we find them in essentially the same place. Between the beginning and the end of the book is a period of approximately 40 years. Those years were years of arrested development for the nation, but continuing progress in God's plan. Let's take a moment to tie the facts of God's progressive revelation together.
As we saw, Genesis teaches us two primary truths: first, the essential relationship that exists between God and man; and, second, that faith is the principle upon which man must live to please God and to realize his own life.
Exodus explains more fully that principle of faith. God is seen as being sovereign, and we find the correct attitude toward His rule is what constitutes genuine faith. We also saw that God's rule is based on a foundation of righteousness and judgment. From that, we see that the life of faith involves two things: worship and obedience.
Leviticus deals more fully with worship, but it isn't a question of how to worship, but why we are to worship. Man's need traces to his sinfulness, and God's redemption is the answer to that need. So Exodus reveals that faith is revealed through worship and obedience; Leviticus deals with worship; and Numbers with obedience.
As you read the book of Numbers, the story is one of disobedience; but God overruled man's disobedience and his disobedience was turned to obedience by means of His discipline. We can't help but notice that God's method is still the same in our lives today: "My son, do not despise the chastening [i.e., discipline] of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives...Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness." - Hebrews 12:5-10. Do you see what we have been talking about, how all of this fits together? His ultimate goal is that you and I might become holy; Numbers teaches us how He accomplishes it.
The primary reason behind the failure of Israel as described in Numbers was selfishness. Several times we read the Israelites "murmured", or complained, against God. Complaining is rooted in selfishness, or self-centeredness. Their problem was they wanted the best of two worlds as they saw it: God's promise to establish them in Canaan, and their own comfort. What we are taught is that when we lose our vision of God, when our primary concern is having things as we think we want them, doubt (remember Adam and Eve) produces discontent and ultimately disaster.
On the other side is God's patience and persistence. We find His provision for Israel in the first ten chapters of the book; we see His patience in chapters 11-25; and His persistence in chapters 26-36. His patience is the most important lesson we can glean from Numbers. He punished the people for their stubbornness, but He was constantly moving toward the realization of His own purposes. He put them in circumstances--the 40 years in the wilderness--to develop them inwardly until they were in agreement with His purposes. Everything done during those years was necessary for shaping and molding a nation of which He would be King.
His persistence? Israel started at the gateway to the Land of Promise (Canaan), they were taken to the woodshed, and God brought them back to the boundary line of Canaan as if to say, "Now are you ready this time to do things My way?" They had learned their lesson. Think about it, and you will see the very same method at work in our own lives as He lovingly, patiently guides us, chastens us, teaches us, and is finally able to assume His rightful place in our hearts.
Deuteronomy was written by Moses (with the exception of the closing verses, written after the death of Moses, and were most likely the work of Joshua). Moses recorded his final words to the nation of Israel. What the book reveals for us is the heart of a man whom God knew "face to face", and it was a relationship that led to an intimate knowledge of God few people have ever enjoyed. The tone of the book is unique because Moses had such a full knowledge and understanding of God. Keep that in mind as you read it.
Love is a word that is seldom seen in the preceding books, but that changes in Deuteronomy. The primary message of the book is love, and it is seen in two ways: (1) God's love for man is the motive behind his government; and (2) man's love for God is the reason for his obedience.
The book consists of six separate discourses, or messages, to the nation. The first two are important because there we find why God had dealt with Israel as He had:
God's laws are stern. You can't help but see that as you read through them. But man needs God's law, even though his laws seem too strict. The problem is that you and I are finite and extremely limited but we are surrounded by infinite issues. God created man to be righteous, the law instructs us in righteousness, but the flesh reacts against the law because it doesn't want any restrictions placed on its ability to choose its own way.
My wife and I had some fairly strict rules for our children when they were growing up. We kept them fairly simple and avoided having so many that even we couldn't have remembered them all. Sometimes they chafed against the restrictions; but once they understood that they were loved and that the restrictions were the result of our love for them, they became less resistant. The older of my two daughters now has her own children, and she and her husband are raising them much the way they themselves were raised. The reason? She under-stands the relationship between love and law.
Following the Civil War, Robert E. Lee became the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. At the time, it was an all-male school. Lee had one rule for students: You are expected to act like gentlemen at all times. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all God had to say to us was, "You are to act as godly people at all times"? But we don't do that, and so He graciously undertakes the tedious process of teaching us why we must obey until we mature to the point where we love Him. Once we get to that point, obedience becomes as natural as breathing, because we will have learned what Jesus meant when He said, "Come unto Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" - Matthew 11:28-30.
The book of Joshua is the first of the books of the prophets, and covers a period of 45-50 years. Joshua himself was born a slave in Egypt, and the first four decades of his life were spent under the harsh rule of the Egyptians. He was about 40 years old at the time of the Exodus, he became Moses’ trusted servant, and he was one of only two men to bring back the right report concerning the land of Canaan. (The other was Caleb.) While Joshua is the central character, the greatest importance of the book is the truths it teaches about God and faith.
The truth the book of Joshua teaches us about God is that He is a God of war. There are those who claim that the God of the Old Testament was a brutal, murderous God who ordered the extermination of various people groups. For others, it is a seeming contradiction they accept but are unable to explain.
We need to recognize that the idea of God as a God of war is seen throughout the Bible. The first time we are presented with that idea is found in the song of Moses following the crossing of the Red Sea: “The Lord is a man of war; the Lord is His name.” - (Exodus 15:3). The word translated in that verse as “Lord” is Yahweh, meaning “Lord of hosts”, or “Lord of armies.” Consider the words of Isaiah in the book named for him, chapter 66, verses 16-17:
“For by fire and by His sword the Lord will judge all flesh; and the slain of the Lord
shall be many. ‘Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the
gardens after an idol in the midst, eating swine’s flesh and the abomination and
the mouse, shall be consumed together, says the Lord’.”
Finally, consider the following passage from Revelation 19:11-15:
“I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was
called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes
were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns…He was clothed with
a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God…out of His mouth
goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He himself will
rule them with a rod of iron. He himself treads the winepress of the fierceness
and wrath of Almighty God.”
We see that the conception of God as being capable of great wrath, a God who punishes, a God of war, runs throughout scripture. But how can that be mitigated with the statement from 1 John that “God is love”? Consider this. I am a peaceful person who has no desire to harm anyone. I am also a former police officer and keep a gun close to the bed. If anyone were to break into my house and threaten my family, peace-loving person though I may be, I would not hesitate to shoot that person before he is able to harm my family. Does that sound like a peaceful person? What would motivate me to shoot an armed burglar? The answer is that I would be motivated by my love for my family.
God is a God of war, but He is also the God of love. Understand this: God is at war with sin, and He will be until the last trace of it is utterly annihilated. That is the explanation for His ordering Joshua to destroy the Canaanites. The people who inhabited Canaan were utterly immoral and corrupt. The Assyrian records, discovered in the 19th century, reveal the depths of their depravity. The description of the pre-Flood people whom God destroyed could also be used to describe the Canaanites: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great upon the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was evil only continually” – Genesis 6:5.
God had long put up with the sin of the Canaanites. He had sent His servants to warn them. Melchizedek, the “king of righteousness” and “king of Salem (i.e., peace)" had lived in the land. Abraham had lived in the land. The Canaanites were well aware of God’s judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah; but they had ignored every warning and persisted in their sin. They had become a cancer that had to be removed. (What frightens me is that our own nation seems is ignoring God's warnings, and that if we persist in unrighteousness, God will as surely judge us as He did ancient Canaan).
Yes, God is the God of love, but He is also an absolutely holy God who loves righteousness, and He will continue at war with sin until not a single trace of unrighteousness remains.
The second great truth taught in Joshua adds to what we have already learned about faith. As we read the pages of Joshua, beginning at Jericho and God’s judgment against Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), we learn three additional lessons about faith:
The picture we find in the book of Judges isn't a pretty one; it details religious apostasy and the awful consequences that follow in its wake. The nation of Israel had fallen rapidly from its victories under Joshua, and the reason isn't hard to determine: "The people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord which He had done for Israel...When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the mighty works which He had done for Israel." - Judges 2:7,10.
That which occurred--the fall from faith to apostasy--took place in a single generation. God's judgments that fell on the nation were the necessary result of their own sin. The people whom they ought to have driven out became their tyrants. God visited defeat on Israel by means of an idolatrous people because Israel itself had stooped to idolatry.
Judges allows us to see the steps that lead from faith to apostasy. Apostasy always begins from a position of knowledge. It begins when God's people tolerate things that are out of harmony with God's holiness. In the early chapters, we read several times, "they did not drive them out." The Israelites tolerated the presence of corrupt people in the land when God's command had been to exterminate them. We can trace the movement from faith to apostasy like this:
When the Israelites ought to have destroyed every last vestige of pagan religion, they wound up raising their own altars to Baal, the false god of the Canaanites.
Religious apostasy is the first step toward political deterioration of a nation. Following the death of Joshua, the Israelites ceased to act as one people. They lived in their own separate territories and had little interaction with other tribes. Civil war nearly exterminated the tribe of Benjamin. As the nation broke up into factions, it was no longer able to act in a unified way; it then became weak in the presence of its enemies, and suffered defeat at their hands.
Another result was internal lawlessness. In Deborah's song (Judges 5:6-7), we learn that the highways were deserted and men traveled on byways. Lawlessness had become so rampant that men took less-traveled routes to avoid the highway robbers that filled the land. Crimes were committed everywhere, but in spite of that we still find the hearts of the people characterized by stubbornness.
That which stands out in stark relief was the spiritual blindness of God's people. They forgot the taking of Jericho as well as their earlier history since the exodus from Egypt, they forgot God's miraculous provision during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. They were also blind to the present activity of God: they failed to realize that the things befalling them were the result of God's judgment. Religious apostasy always results in spiritual blindness.
The story of Judges is told in seven cycles, cycles that followed a pattern of sin, punishment, and deliverance. Israel fell into sin and apostasy, God visited His judgment on them, they cried to God for relief, and He raised up a deliverer, or judge. Unfortunately, the beginning of each new cycle was characterized by a lower level of spirituality than the previous one. The last judge was Samson. When Samson came into the picture, the nation was deteriorated, and Samson was unable to deliver them. We read that "He [Samson] shall begin to save Israel." He never succeeded. One of the starkest statements in all of scripture says this of Samson: "He knew not that the Lord was departed from him." A sensual man, Samson toyed with evil things until he could no longer determine God's voice.
The book of Judges is full of teaching for the present time in our own nation. Religious apostasy is evidenced everywhere. We see churches that meet in beautiful buildings with large budgets and even larger crowds, but there is little evidence of the faith that is described in scripture. The political deterioration that is blatantly obvious, the lack of unity in our nation, even the lawlessness that has become a daily fact of life, all give evidence of a nation that has wickedly departed from God.
The one positive note we take away from Judges is that, in spite of the apostasy of the nation, God was still moving toward His ultimate goal. His methods haven't changed. He still punishes through war, catastrophe, and by allowing us to suffer the inevitable consequences of our own poor choices. But He is also a God who stands ready to pardon and forgive. The message found in 2 Chronicles 7:14 is a message as necessary for our nation today as it was for Israel of old:
"If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My
face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin,
and will heal their land."
The answer isn't political, it isn't a question of money or crowds or influence; it depends solely and completely upon whether or not those who belong to God are willing to approach Him on the grounds which He Himself has determined. Nothing else will work.
Set against the backdrop of the period of the judges, Ruth is a beautiful little book with a timely message for the present time. It tells the story of two people—Ruth and Boaz—whose faith in God remained steadfast at a time when everything was working against faithfulness. Religious apostasy ruled the day, and the nation had been broken up into disconnected tribal units. The lives of Ruth and Boaz serve as a reminder that even in the darkest periods, God still has those who remain faithful to Him.
The real value of the book of Ruth is that it teaches us how God is able to use the life of anyone willing to place his or her life in His hands. Ruth followed her mother-in-law Naomi from Moab to Israel. As a Moabitess, she was from an accursed race who, according to the law of Moses, wasn’t permitted to enter the congregation of God’s covenant people. That disability, however, was voided when Ruth chose to put her faith in God, just as Rahab had done at Jericho. But even though Ruth was accepted by God because of her faith, she understood that she would most likely not receive a welcome from most of the Israelites. Her love for Naomi was remarkable: Ruth was aware that she was following Naomi into poverty with no prospects on the horizon. The one thing she did have was faith in Naomi's God (“Your God shall be my God”). She obviously saw something in the life of Naomi which drew her to trust her mother-in-law's God.
Boaz was a different story. He was well-to-do, and obviously a man of some influence with his neighbors. Whereas Ruth and Naomi had no way of knowing where their next meal was coming from, Boaz had all that he needed and more. There are perhaps no circumstances in which it is more difficult to live the life of faith. As Jesus pointed out, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He didn’t mean it is impossible, just that wealth definitely stands as a roadblock on the path of faith.
The secret in each case, of Ruth and Boaz, was that God is sufficient for all who trust Him. Knowing Naomi’s circumstances, Ruth was certainly under no illusion that trusting Naomi’s God would result in material prosperity. She was a woman who displayed the characteristics of love, modesty, humility, and courage. In spite of his position and wealth, Boaz was steadfastly loyal to God in a time when most men had forgotten Him. His trust in God enabled Boaz to live a godly life in a time when to do so was extremely difficult. Although their circumstances were entirely different, both Ruth and Boaz lived on the principle of unwavering faith in God.
The first lesson we can glean from the book of Ruth is that outward circumstances neither make nor break those whose trust is in God. That leads us to the conclusion that the principle of victory is faith. We can define faith as the principle that takes hold of God and appropriates all His resources. It is a two-way street: the faithful Christian takes hold of that in God which man needs, and God is able to take hold of what He needs from the life of the faithful Christian. Thus we learn additional lessons about the laws of faith:
Ruth teaches us one final lesson. It teaches us the value to God of the life that is fully yielded to and follows Him in faith. Faith understands that we will never truly know the value of the yielded life until we finally stand before the Lord. As we read the closing verses of the book, we discover that Obed, the child of Ruth and Boaz, would become the grandfather of King David. David would sit on the throne which would one day be occupied by Christ Himself. Ruth and Boaz didn’t live to realize the ultimate harvest of their faithfulness, but that isn’t important to the man or woman who trusts God. It is enough to know that God can find a foothold in the man and woman of faith.
And that is perhaps the most important lesson this little book teaches us, because it serves as an encouragement to us in the midst of our own labors. Don’t concern yourself with the final outcome or success of your life; leave that in God’s hands. Be content with knowing that God will use you to accomplish His purposes if you will but yield control of your life to Him. No greater success is possible.
The two books of Samuel constitute one story, and its lessons we ignore to our peril. First Samuel gives the history of the transition from a theocracy (God as ruler) to a monarchy (ruled by a king). The transition is explained in chapter eight:
"All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, Look,
you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the
nations. But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, Give us a king to judge us. So Samuel
prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, Heed the voice of the people in all that they
say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign
Two key statements from that passage tell the story of the transition: “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations”; and, “They have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” The very reason for the existence of the nation of Israel was that they should be unlike the other nations. What made them unique was that Israel had God as its only King. They claimed that they wanted to be like other nations, but the real reason was they did not want God to be their King. The days of the Judges were days of religious apostasy, political chaos, and social disruption. Religious apostasy in the case of Israel meant that they refused to obey God and His law. They didn’t want to admit that to Samuel, and so their request failed to mention God. Sin always attempts to substitute the false for the true. That is the history of idolatry, regardless of whatever form it may take. (You don’t want to think only in terms of statues or images; it can take on any guise. For example, scripture identifies covetousness as a form of idolatry). Every idol points to man’s need of God. When God is left out of a person’s thinking, something has to be put in His place.
God told Samuel to give them what they wanted: a human king. That reveals the great truth taught in this first book of Samuel: that God continues to reign even when it becomes necessary for Him to adapt His methods. No decision made by man will halt the advancement of God’s plan. The corollary to that truth is that men cooperate with God in spite of themselves. Their cooperation can be loyalty or failure. Think of it this way: it is one thing to reject God; it is something entirely different to dethrone Him. The former is possible, the latter is impossible.
As we read First Samuel, we find the stories of its central characters, Samuel, Saul, and David. But their stories are important primarily because they reveal the fact that God continued to reign, adapting His method to changed requirements. Whether through obedience or disobedience—and all three were guilty of both—God’s plan continued unabated. The important values of the book are expressed in Hannah’s song, chapter 2, verses 6-8 and verse 10:
The Lord kills, and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low and lifts up.
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the beggar from the ash heap,
To set them among princes
And make them inherit the throne of glory.
The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces;
From heaven He will thunder against them.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
He will give strength to His king,
And exalt the horn of His anointed.
The lessons from Samuel are especially pertinent for the Church. Describing all believers, Peter wrote, "You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people, but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy." - (1 Peter 2:9-10).
The things that were true for the nation of Israel are just as true for believers, and our choice is the same: either we submit ourselves to God and His authority over our lives, or we rebel, wanting to be like the world. But regardless how we may choose, God's plan will continue to its culmination. The difference is that if we choose to serve Him, we will reap the benefits promised to those who do so, but if we reject Him as the Ruler of our lives, then we have no one to blame but ourselves for what we will most certainly lose:
"For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if
anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's
work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire
will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he
will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be
saved, yet so as through fire." - 1 Corinthians 3:11-15
The second book of Samuel provides us with the history of David's kingship, but more particularly it reveals his specific contribution to God's purpose. It helps us to see why God is able to use some Christians but not others.
In 1 Samuel, we read about the preparation for David's life's work: shepherd; musician and courtier in Saul's palace; and his years spent in the wilderness as an outlaw evading Saul. During his years tending his father's sheep, David's soul was trained. His background as a shepherd would teach him as king to care for those under him. His time spent in Saul's palace taught him the details of what it meant to be king. His years of exile toughened him for the decisions he would have to make as king.
What 2 Samuel teaches us has value for every Christian. What we find in this book is contained in two statements:
That second statement may sound a bit strange. Doesn’t God have the same attitude toward all Christians? The answer to that question is a very emphatic ‘No.’ Consider the words of David in chapter 22:
“With the merciful You will show yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show yourself blameless;
With the pure You will show yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show yourself shrewd.”
What those statements mean is that God is to the individual what the individual is to God. That is the principle. The book of 2nd Samuel teaches us what David’s attitude was toward God. Four things stand out. First, David’s conception of God’s supremacy; second, his certainty that God is righteous; third, his confidence in God’s mercy; and, fourth, David’s conformity to God’s will. To be sure, there were times when David’s faith faltered and he committed egregious sins; but it can be argued that even in sin David’s faith never faltered, that he had a genuine desire for holiness, and that David could still claim, “My soul follows hard after You” (Psalm 63:8).
That attitude gave God the opportunity to take David from sheepfold and make him king over Israel. God could exercise His sovereignty through David, because he understood it. God could exercise His righteousness through David as king. God was able to exercise His power through a man who had the right attitude toward Him.
One of the most encouraging things that comes from the example of David has to do with the fact that he failed so miserably regarding Bath-sheba and Uriah, her husband. Consider God’s assessment in 1 Kings 15:5: “David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” That does not mean that God excused David’s sin—not for a moment!—but that His measure of the individual, and His ability to use that person, depends on the deepest desire of that person’s heart. God measures us by what we will to be, not by the times we fail. David was able to say of God, “The Lord will perfect that which concerns me; Your mercy, O Lord, endures forever; do not forsake the works of Your hands.” (Psalm 138:8).
That thought deserves one last comment. I am prone to measure others by the last sin they have committed, especially if it was against me. God never does that. He measures by the attitude of a person’s soul. Let’s say you have committed a sin. As a result, your Christian friends may not be as friendly as they once were. Do you want to do right, in spite of your failure? If your answer is in the affirmative, then that is the measurement God uses. The danger involved is that you really wanted to do that wrong thing. That is what God sees; that is the standard He uses when He measures you. May God give us the power to see the difference.
Two books of 1st and 2nd Kings appear as a single book in the Hebrew Bible. The story the book of First Kings tells us is that of a nation—Israel—deteriorating in a little over 150 years (the time period covered by the book) from a rich and powerful nation to a nation characterized by crushing debt and political paralysis. The parallels to our own nation are obvious, and for the same reason: they forgot God, we are forgetting Him. The book also reminds us of a second Kingdom: the unfailing Kingdom of God.
The first kingdom was the earthly one. Solomon was the last king to rule over a united Israel. Although noted for his God-given wisdom, his life demonstrates the fact that wisdom minus obedience results only in failure. Although he had been chosen by God to build the Temple, that only tells us part of the story. Solomon’s kingdom was notable for its excess. Like a cancer, his failure began long before it became evident. A sensuous man who ultimately took 700 wives and 300 concubines—we are told that his many pagan wives turned his heart from serving the Lord—there was another side to Solomon. Following his death, his son Rehoboam assumed the throne. Representatives from the tribes went to Rehoboam, saying, “Your father made our yoke grievous.” Solomon had levied onerous taxes on the people; he had compelled many into his service as soldiers, cooks, maids, servants, and other laborers; and public expenditures were immense. Everything that Samuel had warned the people about the effects of having a king (see 1 Samuel 8:11-17) was fulfilled in far greater degree under Solomon than it had been under Saul.
The nation was divided as a result of Rehoboam’s ill-advised threat (“My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges!”). From that point, the northern kingdom of Israel almost immediately fell into apostasy, led by a succession of godless kings from Jeroboam to Ahab. The southern kingdom, Judah, would continue for over a century longer, but it, too, forgot God and ultimately suffered His judgment. The best of Judah’s kings—Abijam, Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah—still far fall short of the standard set by David.
The lesson we can glean? Man is incapable of governing himself. The reason? Man doesn’t know himself. As a result, man’s government always ultimately ends in failure. Look at history. Greece, Rome, Spain, France, England, the Soviet Union, and now we are watching as our own nation falls into decline and destruction. In every case, God was deliberately forgotten. Israel had its temple, and the United States may have its National Cathedral, but in both cases genuine religion with God enthroned was reduced to religious form and ceremony devoid of all true meaning.
When we turn our attention, however, to the throne of God, we see that although He had been largely forgotten, He nevertheless remained in control. God sent His prophets. Ahijah declared that following the death of Solomon, the kingdom would be rent in two. Later he foretold the death of Jeroboam. Shemaiah warned Rehoboam not to fight against Jeroboam. Jehu pronounced the destruction that would fall on Baasha. Elijah came on the scene, thunderously proclaiming God and vindicating Him at Mt. Carmel. A son of the prophets rebuked Ahab for allowing Benhadad to escape. Micaiah, in spite of everything done to silence him, declared the coming scattering of Israel upon the mountains. In all of these appearances by His spokesmen, we see God governing independently when the throne on earth was filled by men who forgot Him.
God also intervened directly. He appeared to Solomon and Solomon commenced construction of the Temple. The beginning of his punishment began with this statement, “The Lord raised up an adversary unto Solomon.” God withheld the rain, resulting in drought and famine, then showed His power on Mt. Carmel. The throne on earth was occupied by a succession of men who failed disastrously; God’s throne was never shaken. Over the chaos below, God steadily moved to restore order.
As I see our own nation failing and see the accumulating evidence of God’s judgment against us because we have forgotten Him, I am encouraged by the knowledge that although presidents, congresses, and courts may have become corrupt and self-serving, God still exercises control from His throne. Everything, I believe, is moving rapidly toward the culmination of man’s reign and God establishing His throne on earth as well as in heaven. When men’s governments abandon God, He abandons them and rules in spite of them. Man may rail against God, but that is nothing short of folly, as we are reminded in Psalm 2:
“Why do the nations rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.
He who sits in the heavens shall laugh;
The Lord shall hold them in derision.
Then He shall speak to them in His deep displeasure:
Yet I have set My King
On My holy hill of Zion…
…Ask of Me, and I will give You
The nations for Your inheritance…
…You shall break them with a rod of iron;
You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Now therefore, be wise, O kings;
Be instructed, you judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,
And you perish in the way,
When His wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him."
As already mentioned, the two books of Kings were originally a single book, and the two together relate a single continuous story. First Kings covers a period of approximately 150 years while the narrative in Second Kings stretches over about 300 years. This was the period of the prophets, and all the great prophetic messages leading up to the Babylonian exile were delivered during this time frame. The reader will find that the book makes the most sense if it is read as a background to the prophecies. For our purposes, we should recall that while the emphasis of 1st Kings is the failing government of man contrasted with God’s unfailing government. 2nd Kings continues those themes, describing the results of those two kingdoms—man’s and God’s.
Simply put, man’s failure was the direct result of his losing a sense and awareness of God. That led to the loss of national identity. Don’t underestimate the importance of that fact. The nation of Israel was created as a demonstration of the superiority of God’s rule and of the blessings that follow those who would submit to His rule. We can see the lost sense of God in the nation’s kings. With the exceptions of kings such as Joash, Amaziah, Jotham, and Hoshea—all of whom served God—there is nevertheless a caveat attached to their names: “[He was] not like David,” or “the high places were not taken away.”
Repeated references to the “high places” might cause some confusion. Weren’t the high places where people met in order to worship God? They were, but God had never commanded the practice; in fact, Israel had been commanded to thoroughly destroy every vestige of pagan worship. The high places were for the most part left intact and the Israelites simply converted their use from the worship of Ba-al and Ashterah to the worship of God. Their error was twofold: they disobeyed God’s command to destroy everything having to do with the pagan religions, and they failed to worship God in the way He had ordained. God isn’t interested in any modifications or additions brought to His worship when the things we do contradict His command.
As pointed out above, the four kings mentioned didn’t fail completely, but they were not diligent to follow the Lord according to His word. Their failures resulted either from compromise or a degree of backsliding, and in some cases a combination of both. They turned their backs on the principles of righteousness, and they multiplied transgressions throughout the land. The men who occupied earthly thrones had lost their vision of the heavenly throne which exercised authority over them.
The idolatries of the people show the extent to which they had lost their sense of God. No man who has a clear vision of God turns to an idol. An idol, rightly understood, is a substitute, something to which a man turns when a vacuum has been created. (How many Christians today unwisely seem to think the hope for any meaningful change and restoration for our nation depends on politics and politicians?) In one sense, idolatry is proof of man’s built-in capacity for God; but that is not an excuse for idolatry. When man turns to idolatry, he is filling a place in his heart which should rightly be filled by God and which was designed for exactly that purpose. Hosea demonstrated the truth of this. He prophesied that when Ephraim (a name used to indicate all the tribes that made up the Northern Kingdom in the same way we once used ‘Russia’ to refer to the entire Soviet Union) finally returned to God, he would say, “What have I to do any longer with idols?” The individual with a clear vision of God always thinks in that manner.
Now let’s direct our attention to that other throne: God’s eternal throne. During the period described in Kings, and because the nation had turned from Him to one degree or another, God dealt with the two nations (Israel and Judah) through His prophets: “They served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, you shall not do this thing. Yet the Lord testified against Israel and against Judah, by all His prophets, every seer, saying, Turn from your evil ways, and keep My commandments and My statutes…nevertheless they would not hear, but stiffened their necks, like the necks of their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God” – 2 Kings 17:13-14[a]. That pictures God’s method. In spite of the rebellion of the people and their kings, we see steady progress of God’s throne toward ultimate victory. He had entered into a covenant with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, in which he promised that through Abraham and his descendants the whole world would be blessed. God would keep His covenant.
In certain ways, the messages of the prophets during this period have an even more important message for us today than did the apostles. Joel’s message concerned the Day of the Lord. Jonah condemned exclusiveness—God’s message is for all mankind. Amos warned about national accountability, a message our own nation would do well to heed—although at this time it seems we have no intention of doing so. Hosea described the sin of forgetting God as spiritual adultery. Obadiah cursed cowardice. Isaiah kept before us the true Throne. Nahum vindicated God’s vengeance. Jeremiah was the prophet of failure. Habakkuk dealt with the problems of faith. Their responsibility was to keep before the nation of Israel a vision of God. Given in a time when God’s people had so utterly failed, we see their significance for us today. If we are to serve God, then one thing is certain: we must see God.
Because of the similarities between the two books of Chronicles and the two books of Kings, it may seem they are essentially telling the same story, although just with minor emphases. In a sense that’s true, but it is the perspective of the books that makes all the difference. In the books of Kings, what we read is history. The message of 1st and 2nd Chronicles, however, emphasizes the relationship of the nation of Judah to its religious life. Some background will help us to understand this.
Internal evidence indicates that Chronicles (in the Hebrew scriptures it consisted of only one book) were written during the same time period as the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah. In 1 Chronicles 6:14-15, we read: “Azariah begot Seraiah, and Seraiah begot Jehozadak. Jehozadak went into captivity when the Lord carried Judah and Jerusalem into captivity by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” It was obviously written by someone looking back on the Babylonian captivity. There is also a close connection between the story we read in Chronicles and the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah. Second Chronicles ends with a proclamation by Cyrus, king of Persia, which made possible the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. That proclamation is the same one we read about in the opening verses of Ezra.
What we see as we read 1 Chronicles is that it was written to encourage the people to rebuild the house of God—the temple—because that is the central subject of the book. The temple represented the nation’s relationship with God, and formed the center of their worship.
When I mention the “nation”, the reference is to Judah, the Southern Kingdom. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, is of no importance and is only mentioned when necessary to indicate relationship to Judah.
The primary value of 1 Chronicles is that it reveals the absolute importance of a recognition of God in the national life of Judah. It was their failure to recognize Him as their true King that had resulted in the Babylonian captivity, and any rebuilding of the nation required a comprehension of and a return to that essential relationship, and it was something the people themselves had to fully understand.
The first ten chapters can seem a little tedious with all the “begots”, but that isn’t where the value lies in those chapters. If you pay close attention, you will see that God was making selection after selection and not following the expected progression. For instance, it begins with Adam but there is no mention of either Cain or Abel. God selected Seth because it was through Seth that we find the line of Enoch and Noah; then through Shem to Abraham and Isaac; then through Judah to Jesse and David; then Solomon and Rehoboam to the captivity. God included the names of individuals based, not upon descent, but upon character based on obedience. Names were deliberately excluded because the natural rights of progeniture were canceled by disobedience. God takes no note of the line from which a person comes. The one thing that counts is obedience—and the character that grows out of that obedience. Every detail, every selection, was carefully made with the Divine goal in mind.
David is prominent in the book, not because he was king, but because the ruling passion of his life was a profound, deep recognition of the relation of the nation to God, and of the necessity of never forgetting that relationship—which, of course, it did. That is why David placed such importance on the Ark, and it is why he desired to build the temple.
The strength of David’s passion is demonstrated in his submission to God. More than anything David wanted to build the temple, not for personal recognition but that God might be preeminent in every aspect of the life of the nation. And then God told him that he would not be permitted to build the temple because he had been a man of war and had shed much blood—even though that was what God had given him to do. But David didn’t argue for even a moment; he yielded immediately to the will of God. (He was permitted, however, to gather the treasure that would be needed in the construction of the temple, in making necessary arrangements, in choosing the site, in appointing the Levites, and so on.)
The author of the book—probably Ezra the scribe, although we don’t know for certain—wanted to show the importance of what the temple represented: the nation’s recognition of God. Take God out of a nation’s life and the national thinking and you are left without a reliable moral compass. That is exactly what we are watching occur in our own nation. When a nation loses its moral standard, then it loses the foundational strength of individual character. It is absolutely pointless to talk about a new social order unless there is a consciousness of and a willingness to submit to the throne of God and His government. That is the primary message we find in 1 Chronicles, and we find it is as applicable today as when it was written.
The background to 2nd Chronicles is the same as 1st Chronicles. Solomon’s temple had been in ruins for three-quarters of a century. Construction of the second temple—known as Zerubbabel’s temple—was about to begin. The message is different, although attention is still focused on the role of the temple in the life of the nation. In 1st Chronicles, the emphasis was on the importance of the temple to the national life of Israel. In 2nd Chronicles, we are confronted with the truth that the temple was essentially useless.
This second book is a condemnation of ritualism. During the period covered in the first book, we see the importance of a recognition of God’s government in every area of life for Israel. What we see in the current book is that when there is only a formal recognition of God devoid of any genuine devotion.
In the first section of the book, we have the story of Solomon. The supreme purpose of his life was the work of building the temple which would exist as the spiritual center for the nation. He began well. We see his humility in asking God for wisdom to rule the nation. His failure was a disaster. Solomon’s failure can be traced to a self-centered life. As a result, he lost his vision and sense of God; and the nation followed his example. Jerusalem was ringed by altars and shrines built to the false gods of his many wives; God’s temple was reduced to mere religious form.
The scene then shifts to the story of the kings who succeeded Solomon. Jeroboam would be the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel. His sin was that he substituted a false form of worship in place of the true. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, retained the true form in the southern kingdom, Judah, setting a pattern that would result in a growing neglect of the truth behind the form. How bad did it get? Years later, when Josiah was king of Judah, he ordered that the temple be repaired. It had largely fallen into disuse and was filled with clutter. During the restoration, Hilkiah the priest (father of the prophet Jeremiah) discovered the book of the law given to Moses! Imagine that. It had been lost for years and no one was even aware of its existence. The nation had retained the form of religion, but the substance had been gutted. Isaiah had put a finger on the problem, and his statement would be quoted by Jesus: “This people draw near to Me with their mouth, but their heart is far from me.” Because the nation had lost touch with God's law, their religion was based on man's ideas of what constituted religion.
The final disaster occurred when the temple was burned by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops and the people were carried away into captivity. The first book teaches us of the necessity, both individually and nationally, of recognizing God’s throne and sovereignty; the second teaches us that when such recognition is mere form and ceremony, it is worse than useless.
Formal religion is devoid of power and substance. It is a mockery. In the same way that the temple was to be the center of Israel’s national life, the Church is intended to fill that role today. It is a question whether or not most Christians in our own nation even understand the true vocation of the church. Although an increasingly large percentage of Americans fail to recognize God’s existence, let alone His authority, the failure rests with the Church. Although the unregenerate world doesn’t realize it—and, unfortunately, not many Christians seem to either—the health of our nation is utterly dependent on the health of the Church. We are to be salt and light, but when we have lost what Jesus referred to as our ‘saltiness’, when we fail to live in the glorious light and truth of the gospel, then the Church loses its ability to influence the world in which it resides. The result is a nation rushing headlong into Godlessness, characterized by low ideals and increasingly immoral conduct; by cowardice in the face of wrong and carelessness with regard to right.
The process is not unlike what occurs when a building is infested with termites. They live in darkness, eating the wood on the inside of boards. An entire floor and its supports can cave in before the damage becomes obvious. Floor joists may have looked solid--they retained the outward form of solid boards for a time--but the strength to support the floor had been slowly eaten away.
Formalism has no power to influence the thinking and behavior of men and women; but formalism is merely a symptom of spiritual apostasy. The drift away from the truth is a long, gradual process that begins long before it becomes evident. And that is what 2nd Chronicles teaches us. Scary, huh?
In order to understand the message of the book of Ezra, we have to understand the connection between it and the two books that follow—Nehemiah and Esther. The three books together cover the history of the period in which one of the prophecies of Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“This whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, says the Lord, and I will make it a perpetual desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:11-12
Then in Jeremiah 29:10-14, we read: “For thus says the Lord: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place…Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity…”
Jeremiah had made those prophecies before the fall of Jerusalem when he went to visit Zedekiah. Jerusalem was under siege by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar and the city’s fall was imminent. As the book of Ezra opens, seventy years have elapsed since the fall of Jerusalem. Babylon’s power had been broken. Persia had become the ruling power and Cyrus the Elamite was on the throne.
Jeremiah had delivered another message of which we need to be aware. In Jeremiah 18:1-10, the prophet describes how the Lord had directed him to go to the house of a potter. Here is the meaning of the passage. Israel was the clay, God the Potter. The vessel of clay had become marred in His hands. That is the history of everything from Abraham to the Babylonian captivity. What occurred next? “He made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make” (v. 4). Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther together tell us the story of how God began to remake Israel. He hasn’t yet finished that work, although He is in the process of doing so. In these three books, we see God’s new beginning.
In those three books, we also discover an interesting truth: God sometimes uses the wicked—those who are outside of His covenant—to accomplish His purposes. Ezra describes how God used Cyrus, Nehemiah shows Him using Darius, and in Esther we have the story of God using Artaxerxes. Each of those kings issued a decree that was as inspired by God as were the messages of any of the prophets. None of the three knew or recognized God, but they were pressed into God’s service.
When God brought the Jews back from captivity, He established one great truth, a truth Moses had stated centuries before: “The Lord your God is One.” God reminded them of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Seventy years had passed, they returned to the land God had given to them, and they never again set up an idol. They still had a great deal more to learn—indeed, they still have much to learn—but in spite of their many failings, Israel is the embodiment of the truth that there is one God.
Ezra emphasizes for us the sovereignty of God, and Jeremiah had stated it when he proclaimed, “He made it again.” The same truth is found in the story of Jonah: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.” That is such an encouragement to us as Christians. No one knows our failures as well as we do ourselves, but we have the assurance that no matter how far we may have drifted, no matter how deep our sin, if we will return to God in genuine sorrow and repentance, leaving behind our stubbornness and rebellion, He will make us again.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah appeared as a single book in the earliest Christian manuscripts. Then they were divided into the First and Second Books of Ezra. It wasn’t until the publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560 that the two books began to appear as individual books.
The time period covered is approximately 110 years. We read the story of a relatively small group of people who were part of a remnant that had fallen a long way from the glorious past of the nation. Although the temple was finally rebuilt after long delays, it had little of the former glory of Solomon’s magnificent temple. The Jews then slipped into a careless formalism until a reformation occurred under the leadership of Ezra. A period of about 22 years for which we have no record passed, then the city wall was rebuilt under Nehemiah. Nehemiah was gone for several years. When he returned, he found the people were neglecting the Sabbath, failing to support the Levites, and many of the priests had intermarried with pagans. Another reformation took place, then Nehemiah passed off the scene. Somewhere between 50 and 100 years later, God sent Malachi to prophesy to the Jews who once again were characterized by spiritual carelessness.
All of this had been prophesied by Jeremiah 70 years before the Babylonian captivity. In the 8th chapter of the book of Hebrews, verses 8-13, we find the author quoting from Jeremiah, pointing out that Christ was the fulfillment of the new covenant which God had promised to establish. We then read, “Now that which decays and waxes old is ready to vanish away.” Jeremiah was looking forward to a new covenant, a covenant that was not external as symbolized by circumcision, but one that would be “[written] in their hearts.” (Jesus was referring to the same thing in Luke 5:36-39.)
Buried in the midst of all of this sad history is a reminder from God. The central section of the book of Nehemiah, chapter 9, is the reading of the Law. That was followed by the prayer of the Levites, which was then followed by the covenant made with the people. When Malachi came on the scene, his final admonition was to “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb (another name for Mt. Sinai) for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments” (Malachi 4:4). The final injunction of the last prophet was “Remember the Law.” When we turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we read: “Before faith came, we were kept under the Law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:23-24).
That is the key to the history beginning with the reading of the Law under Nehemiah. It is what the Law did for the next 400 years. ‘Schoolmaster’ isn’t a very accurate rendering. Neither is the word 'tutor' which appears in other Bible versions. The English form of the underlying Greek word is pedagogue. The pedagogue was the servant who took the boy to school, not the man who taught him. It would be more accurate to say the Law kept the Jews in ward, it became their custodian and kept them there until the advent of Christ. God’s purpose, as we see it in Nehemiah, was giving the people the Law, then locking them up, so to speak, until Christ came. The kings had failed, the priests had failed, and the people had refused to listen to the prophets; so God raised up a common man—Nehemiah—who embodied the truth that “My righteous one shall live by faith.”
The example of Nehemiah teaches us much about what it means to live by faith. He learned that one of the priests was permitting an enemy to live in one of the rooms in the temple reserved for the priests. Nehemiah threw out his furniture, and he "contended with them, and cursed them, and plucked off their hair." Faith does not--indeed cannot--compromise with evil.
That same message is seen in Isaiah: “Who is among you who fears the Lord, that obeys the voice of His servant, that walks in darkness, and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God” (Isaiah 50:10). That is the attitude of faith which we find in Nehemiah: complete confidence in God. From the opening of the book to the end, Nehemiah’s faith in God never wavered. And underscoring that was his concern for God’s purposes. And that is a lesson we would all do well to implement in our own lives.
The story recorded in the book of Esther took place during the sixty years between the work of Zerubbabel and Ezra. Esther’s story, however, has nothing to do with Jerusalem or with those who had returned there, but with those who had refused to return.
The book of Esther is unique in that the name of God is never mentioned, nor is there any reference to the Hebrew religion: no mention of the temple, nothing about the law, no reference to the ceremonies of worship. There is a single reference to Jerusalem in the sixth verse of chapter two, but it serves only to show where Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, came from. But while God is never mentioned by name, it is impossible to read the book without being aware of His presence. What we have in Esther is a revelation of God acting in providence.
Providence is a word no longer in common usage, but it’s important to understand it in order to recognize one of the ways in which God works. The root meaning is foresight; its primary usage has to do with activity resulting from foresight. Man has no foresight. Scripture states that, “You do not know what will happen tomorrow” (James 4:14). It is God alone who is able to act on the basis of foresight.
Esther teaches us about God’s providence by means of a story. God is hidden, unrecognized, but still at work. Read the book first to learn the story. At the outset, the chief man in the court of Ahasuerus was Haman, a man who hated Mordecai and the Jews. Because of his hatred, the Jews who remained were in danger. By the end of the book, Haman is dead and Mordecai has assumed his position.
To accomplish His purposes, God works through seemingly trivial and disconnected details. In the first chapter, we find Ahasuerus in a drunken state, ordering the removal of his queen, Vashti. God didn’t make Ahasuerus drunk, nor did He put the wicked desire in his heart to put his wife on display before his intoxicated lords. Later on, we find God using the king’s sleeplessness. The non-believer would claim that the king just ‘happened’ to have difficulty sleeping, and he just ‘happened’ to have the records read to him, and it is purely coincidence that Mordecai’s name was discovered during the reading. But to the mind of faith, God’s hand is clearly recognized. James Russell Lowell, the New England poet from the 19th century stated it well:
“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind
the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping
watch above His own.”
We learn something else about God’s providence: although He allows man to act of his own free will, man is unable to escape God’s will. Ahasuerus got drunk and made a foolish decision, and at the right moment God intervened. Haman had his gallows built, but in the end God had him hanged on that same gallows.
What we see at work is the absolute power of God. That coupled with the understanding that God is constantly at work in the shadows results in confidence and courage on the part of the one who knows Him. We are living in an increasingly unsettled time. Our government is increasingly detached from the average citizen. Those in power work to increase and consolidate their power, living comfortably from the national treasury, while citizens find opportunities to improve their own circumstances dwindling. It's the same everywhere. But Psalm 2 serves as a severe warning to those in power who forget God:
"Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and
the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, 'Let us break their
bonds in pieces and cast away their cords from us.' He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord
shall hold them in derision...now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in
the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him."
The lessons of Esther? Reckon with God. Count on Him. Cooperate with Him.
If you would like to continue with a study of the various books of the Old Testament, please go to www.graceftwright.org.