Worldview Bible
Give It a Rest

Nehemiah 10:31

And if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day. And we will forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.

The Story: When Rome ruled Judea and Jerusalem, they considered the Jews lazy because they rested every seventh day and every seventh year. The historian Tacitus wrote, “We are told that the rest of the seventh day was adopted, because this day brought with it a termination of their toils; after a while the charm of indolence beguiled them into giving up the seventh year also to inaction.” No doubt the Babylonians and Persians thought something similar. Now, however, that the Jews were back in their own land, they would obey the Law regarding the Sabbath Day (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15), the Sabbath Year (Exodus 23:10-11; Leviticus 25:2-7), and the cancellation of debts during the Sabbath Year (Deuteronomy 15:1-3). The object was not, of course, indolence, nor was it simply tagging all the bases of the Law. The Sabbath was all about trust in God. This is why it was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17). God was their sovereign Lord and Provider and He commanded them to put Him to the test every seventh day and seventh year.

The Structure: God is our sovereign Lord and Provider as well, but like most of Israel for most of history, we refuse to put Him to the test, or (to put it more accurately), we refuse to trust Him. Most of us steadfastly refuse to “give it a rest.” Instead we are restless, worrying about our lives and our business as if everything depended on us. In the face of that, Jesus continues to offer us grace, saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). After noting to our commitment to hard work, pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote, “Perhaps that is why the Sabbath is commanded not suggested, for nothing less than a command has the power to intervene in the vicious, accelerating, self-perpetuating cycle of faithless and graceless busyness, the only part of which we are conscious being our good intentions.” Though in the New Covenant, the Sabbath is no longer the sign of the covenant, it is—or at least it can be—a reminder not to take ourselves so seriously, of the rest Christ offers, and of the Eternal Sabbath He has prepared for us.

How do you keep the Sabbath? How can resting one day a week help you to more effectively rest and trust God every day?

Marriage in the Faith

Nehemiah 10:30

We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons.

The Story: The temptation to intermarry had been strong during the Exile, and now at home it became even stronger. In all probability, a significant majority of those who returned from exile were men. This presented a challenge for marriage, since there were simply not enough Jewish women to meet the demand. Of course, Jewish women were not the only women living in the region, and choosing a wife from among the non-Jewish residents would have seemed a reasonable option. This was particularly true among the wealthier families in and around Jerusalem, who would have been tempted to arrange marriages in order to gain land and form political alliances. Nonetheless, the people promised not to intermarry. The issue was not racial, but spiritual. In Egypt at this same time, the Jews in Elephantine practiced intermarriage with bad results. Pagans married to Jews might begin worshiping the Lord, but would continue to worship their own god or gods. At the same time the Jewish spouses would continue to worship the Lord, but serve their spouses’ deities as well. Preserving a people holy to the Lord required marrying and raising children in the faith.

The Structure: We know from experience and from surveys that religious intermarriage is related to a loss of religious identity and religious practice for both spouses and for their children. Such marriages are often less happy and are more susceptible to divorce. For example, one study found that while the divorce rate among evangelical Christians is about one third, the divorce rate for marriages where only one spouse is evangelical rises to half. If the non-evangelical spouse is not religious at all, it rises to nearly two thirds. Similar statistics apply to Catholics and Jews. We would expect this. If spouses experience a lack of agreement on spiritual matters, that is, a lack of agreement in their worldview, there will probably be conflicts everywhere. We could only believe otherwise if we view Christianity as less than a worldview and a comprehensive way of life. And so while he was not addressing marriage specifically, with great wisdom, St. Paul wrote, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

Do you believe that Christianity is a worldview and a comprehensive way of life? How does your answer to that question influence your ideas about choice of spouse, marriage, children, and family?

'A Curse and an Oath'

Nehemiah 10:1-29

On the seals are the names of Nehemiah the governor, the son of Hacaliah, Zedekiah. . . . The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord our Lord and his rules and his statutes.

The Story: In order to avoid national sin and the attending judgment, the people of Nehemiah’s day signed a document pledging loyalty to God. As their leader, Nehemiah signed first, followed by priests (verses 1-8), Levites (verses 9-13), leaders (verses 14-27), and “the rest of the people.” Usually in the ancient world, “the rest” included men only, but here it included their wives, sons, and daughters as well. “All who have knowledge and understanding” seems to cover anyone over the age of reason. This made sense, since the concern was not just for the current generation, but for future generations as well. All these renewed the oath their ancestors pledged. They had sworn an oath after Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Law, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:7-8). Later they confirmed their covenant with sacrifice and the reading of the Law: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). In Jerusalem, nearly a thousand years later, their descendants confirmed that covenant, with all its blessings and its curses.

The Structure: Contracts can be and often are broken without much bother and without serious consequences. Oaths, on the other hand, while they can certainly be broken, nonetheless remain binding. We break them at our spiritual peril. While there are still oaths of office and oaths taken when giving evidence in court, most oaths today are religious. In the Church, we take marriage vows, baptismal vows, church membership vows, and ordination vows. The words we speak are not mere ritual or a tip of the hat to the past with some “solidarity with those who have gone before us.” The words bind us and thus control our future decisions and way of life. The God who faithfully keeps His covenants, expects—actually demands—our faithfulness. Not that this is easy. Oaths are often taken at spiritual and emotional high points—when getting married, for example—but need to be performed in the trenches of daily life. Does that mean we should avoid oaths? Many people think so and avoid making promises. The better solution is to remember, in the words of the old Anglican wedding service, that marriage or any other covenant “is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”

What oaths have you taken? Are you faithful to those oaths? How can you grow in greater faithfulness?

'How Now Shall We Live?'

Nehemiah 9:38

“Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests.”

The Story: While people did write in the ancient world, documents were rare. Most agreements were by word of mouth, binding with witnesses and honor rather than ink. Only a small minority could read and write, and the velum (sheepskin) on which people wrote was expensive. But as the people of Nehemiah’s day renewed their covenant with God, promising faithfulness to His law and the way of life He ordained, they spared no expense. There was nothing the people could do to change history or the situation in which they found themselves. Artaxerxes was their king until his heir took his place. They would be a subject people paying tribute and even giving their sons to the Persian army. But while they could not change the past, they could change the future. They did that by committing themselves in writing to live differently from their ancestors, avoiding their mistakes, their bad decisions, and their sins.

The Structure: Yesterday we considered how the sins of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors impact our lives today. And while that is worth considering, we need to remember that history cannot be changed and stewing about it quickly becomes counterproductive. The past is over; the future is future. We only have today, and today we can make decision for a better future for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, our church, our neighbors, our community, our nation, even our world. “How Now Shall We Live?” is the title of what may be Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcy’s best-known book, and the question demands answers. The book offers some good ones, but ultimately you and I need to answer the question for ourselves. If we don’t, like the ancestors of the exiles returning from Persia, we will find ourselves sucked into the thought patterns and behavior of the prevailing culture—never a good thing. Like the Jews in Nehemiah’s day, we need to resolve to be countercultural, living God’s way in a fallen and broken world so that people’s brokenness might be healed.

How now shall you live?

The Legacy of Sin

Nehemiah 9:36-37

“Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.”

The Story: God brought His people back to Jerusalem from exile and captivity. By His grace, the Persians were good to the Jews, as we know from the first chapters of Nehemiah. At the same time, Judah was still a part of the Persian Empire and the Persians expected obedience and tribute from vassal states. There was no king ruling in Jerusalem. Instead there was a governor appointed by King Artaxerxes. Even though Nehemiah was an exceedingly godly man who ruled as a kind, generous, and just governor, he worked for and was answerable to his and their king. Why? Their ancestors had sinned, resulting in a series of circumstances that changed the history of Israel for the worse for centuries to come. God sent the Assyrians to chastise Judah and the Babylonians to take them captive. After that they were ruled by the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander the Great, the vile Seleucids, and the Romans who eventually destroyed Israel completely. God’s people experienced not only judgment, but also the hard legacy brought about by the sin of their ancestors.

The Structure: While the Bible teaches us to think historically, the world around us teaches us to think from day to day as though history made no difference. The world around us is wrong. First and foremost, we are still beset with the results of Adam and Eve’s sin. We live in a fallen world among people who, as St. Augustine wrote in “City of God,” are infected with libido dominandi. We all have the desire to dominate those around us and force them to do as we please. This is the operative principle in our fallen world from generation to generation. We know that children suffer well into adulthood for the sins of their parents, that child abuse is passed on from one generation to the next, and that divorce and criminality are as well. The character of individuals, families, nations, and people groups is formed by decisions made for good or ill by ancestors. As those gathered in Jerusalem knew, this is not a way to avoid personal responsibility, but it is a reminder that our actions—for good or ill—are not simply our own. They have roots in the past and consequences in the future.

How do you make sense of the sins of your parents and ancestors and the way they impact your life? What kind of moral legacy are you passing down to your children and grandchildren?

'You Have Been Righteous'

Nehemiah 9:33-35

“Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works.”

The Story: God’s judgments, the people in Jerusalem declared, were right. What befell Israel and Judah—conquest by foreigners and exile—was not the capricious will of an all-powerful, but unloving deity. They were the righteous judgments of a holy and faithful God whose kindness and love were spurned repeatedly over the course of centuries. Even in the midst of blessings upon blessings, in the midst of freedom, prosperity, and wealth, the people from the elites to the common folk refused to serve God, preferring sin to sanctity. And so judgment finally came. The people could have complained that the Babylonians were excessively cruel, and they were (Psalm 137:9 is about payback). They could have complained that the punishment didn’t fit the crime, or that while their fathers may have ignored God’s commands, it wasn’t entirely their fault. They could have accused God of placing temptations in their paths. Instead, as part of confession, they agreed with God. He is righteous in all His ways (Psalm 145:17) and those ways include His righteous punitive judgment on sinners.

The Structure: In an interview, English comedian, activist, and atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he would say to God (assuming there was a god) at the gates of Heaven. He replied, “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right.” He went on, “It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” While the population of atheists may be small, questioning God’s motives, morality, and mental health is common today. Judging God by human standards makes sense to most people. The fundamental error that leads to such judgments is theological, not moral confusion. We assume God is like us, only very, very big and powerful. If that’s true, it makes sense to apply our moral understanding to His actions. But God is not like us. We are a reflection of His image, not the other way around. In His being, His goodness, His holiness, His wisdom, God is far beyond what we can imagine and understand. It is with that in mind that we must learn to see the hand of God at work in the world.

In what ways do you conceive of God as an extremely large, powerful human? Spend some time meditating on Isaiah 55:8-9. How does this text change your thinking about God and His righteous judgments?

The Hardness of Hardship

Nehemiah 9:32

“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day.”

The Story: While Jerusalem did not fall until the Babylonians breached the walls in 586 B.C., the problem of invading armies began in earnest with the Assyrian Empire. In the late 700s, Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III carried the tribes of Ruben, Gad, and half of Manasseh into exile (2 Chronicles 5:23-26) and turned Judah into a vassal state (2 Kings 16:7-9). Tiglath-Pileser’s grandson, Sennacherib, later overran Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32:1-23). God delivered Jerusalem, but the hardship and deprivation were harsh and devastating, though not nearly as harsh and devastating as the Babylonian conquest. So the people in Nehemiah’s day cried to God, “Let not all the hardship seem little to you.” The people had been unfaithful to God and thus responsible for their own pain. At the same time, this prayer calls on God to remember with compassion the hardship their sins had caused. They could only make that request knowing that the covenant-keeping God is filled with grace and mercy for His people.

The Structure: On the one hand, the felon moldering in prison, the addict living on the street, or the gay man dying of AIDS are each experiencing the consequences of their choices. On the other hand, they are enduring hardships that we dare not consider little. Life is harsh enough without our making disastrously bad choices. In fact, even as the people of Jerusalem prayed that God would not see their hardships as small and would help them, we are called to come to the aid of those in hardship even if that hardship is the direct result of their sinful choices. Jesus made the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and by extension all those in need the special responsibility of His people (Matthew 25:31-46). We are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner without regard to the decisions that led them to their hardship. In doing so, Jesus said, we minister to Him and we become more like Him in the process.

Are there people you know whose hardships seem little to you or seem well deserved given the decisions they have made? Are there ways in which you can love them in their hardships? What’s keeping you from doing that?

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