Sunday, July 22, 2018

The prayer that changed a nation's story

Nehemiah praying - Nehemiah 1
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Nehemiah 1-3; Psalm 48

"And so it was, when I heard these words that I sat down and wept and mourned for many days' I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven." - Nehemiah 1:4

The word economy of the Bible quickly gets us to the crux of the matter in this story that takes place at the end of the Old Testament time. The described state of his fellow Hebrews in Jerusalem distresses Nehemiah (who is a servant of Persian King Artaxerxes) immensely. So he does what we should all do when we're distressed—goes to the One who can help.

Nehemiah 1:5-11 is Nehemiah's heartfelt prayer. Let's look closely at it to see what we can learn about prayer from it.

1. Nehemiah begins by addressing God: "Lord God of heaven, O great and awesome God..." His beginning puts him in his place and vaults God to His. By saying these faith-building words (Nehemiah 1:5) Nehemiah also reminds himself of God's power and ability to answer.

2. Nehemiah includes himself with the people (Nehemiah 1:6-7).  Though he is many miles away and probably hasn't participated personally in the sins he confesses, he stands in solidarity with his countrymen. His identification with them also shows his understanding of how God works in and through nations.

3. He prays God's words back to Him.
Nehemiah 1:8-9 are a paraphrase a Moses' words in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, recalling words of warning and blessing to Israel from centuries earlier (see Leviticus 26:33 and Deuteronomy 4:25-27, 29-30; 28:63-67; 30:4).

4. He names his request. He reminds God of the investment He has already made in Israel (Nehemiah 1:10) and pleads for mercy, for himself (from his boss, the King of Persia; 'would God move the heart of a king to give him favor?') and in that, also for all of Israel (Nehemiah 1:11).

The rest of the book of Nehemiah tells the story of how King Artaxerxes releases Nehemiah from his duties, finances and equips his trip to Jerusalem, and then how Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall and eventually a spiritual revival.

What large and small things are troubling us today? Let's pray about them. Let's pray remembering how big and capable God is in contrast to our own neediness, frailty, and unworthiness. Let's pray God's words—His promises—back to Him, naming our requests with all the passion and emotion they bring up in his.

Dear God, thank You for prayer. Help me to realize that a burden about a situation or person is also an invitation to pray about it. Help me to pray from my heart,  with faith in You and Your power. Amen.


Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Ezra's prayer of 'Here is how it is...'

Ezra in Prayer by Gustave Dore
Ezra in Prayer - Gustave Dore

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezra 8-10; Psalm 47

"And I said, 'O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown to the heavens.'" Ezra 9:6

Ezra was terribly distressed. His body language—torn clothes, pulled out hair, abject posture—tells us that, even before we read the first words that come out of his mouth.

The reason? It's because the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem, indeed even their leaders, had intermarried with the idol-worshiping women of the surrounding nations. And in general the people were arranging marriages for their sons and daughters with pagan neighbours.

There was a strong tradition of marital exclusivity among the Jews:
  • Abraham insisted Isaac not marry a Canaanite women (Genesis 24:3,37).
  • Rebekah insisted Jacob not take a wife from the Canaanites (Genesis 28:1) though Esau did, much to his parents' chagrin (Genesis 27:46).
  • When the Israelites were about to enter Canaan, Moses spoke the ban clearly:
"When the Lord your God brings you into the shall conquer them and utterly destroy them (the "many nations" that inhabit it) ....Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from Me to serve other gods so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly" (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).

But intermarrying with Gentiles had happened over and over already in Israel's history with predictable results. A notable example was Solomon (1 Kings 3:1; 11:1-11).

Now Ezra was witnessing the old compromise, and he was clearly terrified that God would make good on His threat to destroy them. His prayer isn't  a direct request at all, but an implied call for mercy. We could paraphrase the end of his prayer: 'Here we are God; this is how it is.'

I wonder what Ezra would think about the marriages of our time. I know it isn't our custom to arrange marriages for our kids and when they fall in love with non-believers we look on helplessly. Well, not exactly helplessly, because we pray that they won't make unwise choices and give them as much guidance as they'll take.

Oh, I know stories abound of how the Christian partner leads the non-Christian to God. But I have also heard too many stories of heartbreak when spouses don't have the same beliefs and values. There is disagreement about how to raise the kids, how to spend money, and on and on. Way too often the unbelieving spouse leads the believing one off the "straight and narrow." There is a reason for Paul's words to the Corinthians to "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers..." - 2 Corinthians 6:14.

Dear God, Ezra's shock and grief at Israel's mixed marriages makes me look at our customs through a different lens. Please help us to raise our kids and grandkids by Your wise principles. Amen.


Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The help of enemies

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezra 4-7; Psalm 46

TO CHEW ON: "And they kept the feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord made them joyful and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel." Ezra 6:22

"When a man's ways please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him," says Proverbs 16:7.

Our reading today is an example of this. Through a decree of Darius king of Babylon, a search was made that turned up another decree issued by Cyrus years earlier. He had commanded that the Jerusalem temple be rebuilt. The cost of this rebuild was to be charged to his royal treasury and the gold and silver accessories (utensils and dishes) were to be restored and returned to the Jerusalem temple (Ezra 6:2-5).

In fact, an additional decree by Darius went on to command that certain provincial leaders "keep away" or "keep yourselves far from there" (Ezra 6:6) and refrain from hindering the project. Instead of causing problems they were to help by supplying tribute money and animals for the sacrifice. The penalty for altering Darius's decree was — well, barbaric (see Ezra 6:12).

When we are serving God, and life (circumstances, and people) comes against us in all kinds of opposition, we can take comfort from this example of God's sovereignty over even the highest rulers. I love the verse: "The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord;
 he guides it wherever he pleases" - Proverbs 21:1 (NLT). There is no situation or person that God can't change or use to achieve His purposes.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for Your sovereignty over all mankind. Help me to be involved in Your purposes, living in sync with Your ways, and in a place where I can expect Your help. Amen.


MORE: The rebuilding of the temple
Gustave Doré's engraving "The Rebuilding of the Temple" gives us an idea of what a big, labor-intensive job this construction project must have been.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

God can make a way

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Ezra 1-3; Psalm 45

“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing saying 

‘… Who is among you of His people? May his God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel (He is God) which is in Jerusalem’” - Ezra 1:1,3

Pinch me, is this really happening?! the Jewish exiles in Babylon may have thought when Cyrus’s proclamation to rebuild the temple came down. However, when God decrees a thing, it will happen, no matter how unlikely it seems.

Ezra notes that Jeremiah’s words were fulfilled. Jeremiah did predict a 70-year exile in Jeremiah 25:12 and Jeremiah 29:10. But even earlier, Isaiah prophesied that the temple would be rebuilt and even named the king (Cyrus) who would rebuild it in Isaiah 44:28.

I love the conclusions of my Bible’s study notes about this:

That the word of the LORD … might be fulfilled” is the underlying explanation of the historical events of this time” - Gary Matsdorf, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible p. 599.


“God is able to accomplish His plans and purposes on behalf of His people either through or in spite of ungodly or even hostile government authorities. Our faith walk often requires that we trust and rely on God to make a way where there is no way … Have faith even when things seem impossible” - Leslyn Musch, Truth-In-Action-Through-Ezra, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 611.

This is a challenge to me to look at the things in my world that seem impossible (personally, family-wise, politically in my country and even internationally) and to keep bringing them to God in prayer. Perhaps even my (and yours too) ongoing concern is His Spirit reminding us about these things so we will keep praying and looking for His answers.

Paul: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” - Romans 8:26.
Jesus: And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing you will receive” - Matthew 21:22.

PRAYER: Dear Father, thank You for this story of Your purpose accomplished through unlikely Cyrus. I trust You to work similarly in my time through likely and unlikely people and circumstances. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.


The Bible Project VIDEO: Ezra & Nehemiah (Read Scripture Series)

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thanks for reading! This year we are using The Bible Project "Timeless Reading Plan" to read through the Bible in 2018. If you'd like to read along in your own Bible, you can download a pdf of the reading plan HERE.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What flows out of you?

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Ezekiel 45-48; Psalm 44

“He told me, ‘This river flows east through the desert and the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea, where it will heal the salty waters and make them fresh and pure. Everything touching the water of this river shall live…’” Ezekiel 47:8,9 TLB

What a lovely picture Ezekiel’s vision paints, of life returning and springing up as a result of living water flowing from the temple!  Ezekiel was not the only one who spoke of this.

Joel saw a similar vision:
“… water will fill the dry stream beds of Judah and a fountain will burst forth from the temple of the Lord to water Acacia Valley” - Joel 3:18.

So did Zechariah:
“Life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously both in winter and summer” - Zechariah 14:8.

John in Revelation saw it too:
“And he pointed out to me a river of pure Water of Life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb, coursing down the center of the main street (of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem - Revelation 21:1). On each side of the river grew Trees of Life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month; the leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations” - Revelation 22:1,2 (compare Ezekiel 47:12).

The beautiful thing is, Jesus also mentioned this life-giving water, but in an even more personal and present way. In John 4, He offered living water to the thirsty Samaritan woman:
“He (Jesus) replied, ‘If only you knew what a wonderful gift God has for you, and who I am, you would ask me for some living water … But the water I give them,’ he said, ‘becomes a perpetual spring within them, watering them forever with eternal life.’” John 4:10,13.

Then, in the temple, preaching to the crowd Jesus said:
‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. For the Scriptures declare that rivers of living water shall flow from the inmost being of anyone who believes in me'" (John 7:37,38, quoting Isaiah 55:1).

John interprets this pouring out as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (John 7:39). Isaiah spoke of it this way:
“For I will give you abundant water for your thirst and for your parched fields. And I will pour out my Spirit and my blessings on your children” - Isaiah 44:3.

As those who cling to Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation, and who have surrendered ourselves to the Holy Spirit, this life-giving flow can be, should be flowing in and through us to others.

We do well to ask ourselves, am I a clear channel of living water? Does my presence bring God’s life, health and wholeness? Or have I become a muddled stream, the sort of which James speaks:
“And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth … Dear brothers, surely this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble first with fresh water and then with bitter water?” James 3:10,11.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, through the work of Your Spirit please flush all that is bitter, stale, and putrid from me. May only living water flow through my thoughts, words, and actions.
PSALM TO PRAY: Psalm 44.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from The Living Bible (or TLB) copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved. The Living Bible, TLB, and the The Living Bible logo are registered trademarks of Tyndale House Publishers.

Thanks for reading! This year we are using The Bible Project "Timeless Reading Plan" to read through the Bible in 2018. If you'd like to read along in your own Bible, you can download a pdf of the reading plan HERE.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

When life turns out the lights

Image: Pixabay
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Ezekiel 40-44;  Psalm 43


“Oh, send out Your light and Your truth!
Let them lead me
Let them bring me to Your holy hill
And to Your tabernacle.” Psalm 43:3

Have you ever tried to walk a footpath—even one you know well—in the dark? Without the benefit of light how easy it is to stumble on subtle unevenesses, to miss obstacles, to run into things, or “see” things that aren’t even there!

Such walking in darkness is bad enough in the physical, but we can also experience it spiritually. That’s what the psalmist seems to be going through in today’s reading.

His distress has several sources. In the verses preceding our focus verse he speaks of an “ungodly nation” and an “unjust man” who trouble him. In Psalm 42 (which commenters believe was originally joined to Psalm 43 as one psalm—note the common refrain in Psalm 42:5,11; 43:5) he speaks of cynics who mock him in his grief (Psalm 42:3) and a personal sense of depression and loss of hope (Psalm 42:5,6; 43:5).

And so he prays for light—a light that will lead him back to God and His house (“Your Tabernacle”), where he dreams of joining others in worship (Psalm 42:4).

It’s easy to identify with the psalmist in his cry for light. Life throws many surprises at us too. Loved ones get sick, or we get a bad diagnosis. Natural disasters wreak havoc with our surroundings and our lives. Money problems are the wreckage of marketplace storms. We often find ourselves asking why, what next, where to from here? We may feel left in the dark, as if God has abandoned us.

At these times, let’s pray, with the psalmist, to get back to Him:
“Oh, send out Your light and Your truth!
Let them lead me”

For He is the source of light (“… God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” - 1 John 1:5). With our hand in His, we can walk any dark path.


Dear Father, uncertainty is so much a part of the human condition—of my condition. Help me not to stew about what I can’t see ahead, but to seek You, to join other believers in Your house, and in faith to enter into praise and worship no matter what my circumstances. Amen.


Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The breath of hope

Bambus in the wind
Image from RGB Stock Photos
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezekiel 37-39; Psalm 42

"Thus says the Lord God to these bones: 'Surely I will cause breath to enter into you and you shall live.' " Ezekiel 37:5

The people with whom Ezekiel would have first shared this vision were far from home. Their beautiful Jerusalem had been ravaged and they were living in Babylon amongst those who spoke a different language, ate different food, had differed customs, and worshiped a different God than they did. Ezekiel's vision would have filled them with hope.

The hope begins with the action in verse Ezekiel 37:5 - God causing breath to enter those bones.

[Breath - ruach is breath, wind, spirit  of living breath in man and animals, spirit as the seat of emotions and mental acts, and the Spirit of God.]

Ezekiel's vision has various interpretations. According to my Bible's study notes,* this vision may be:
- a prophecy of the post-exile return of the exiled Jews from Babylon.
- an Old Testament picture of bodily resurrection.
- an analogy for spiritual regeneration and the birth of the church.
- a prophecy of national Israel being restored in end times.

If we take it as an analogy for spiritual regeneration and apply it to our own lives, it can also give hope to us.

Spiritual life in the Bible begins with that birth / wind of the Spirit. Jesus, talking to Nicodemus about being born again, used the picture of wind: "' Do not marvel that I said to you, "You must be born again." The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes form and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit' " - John 3:7,8.

Spiritual work continues with the Spirit's enabling. After His resurrection, Jesus came to the disciples before He commissioned them and "He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.' " - John 20:22.

Spiritual work takes off by the power of the Spirit. Jesus told the disciples to wait for the Spirit's empowering and when He came on the Day of Pentecost and baptized them all, He came with "… a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind…" - Acts 2:2.

Whatever that pile of dead bones is in our situation, God can also revive it with His life-giving breath. Like the exiles of Ezekiel's time found hope in this picture of breath coming into the dead bones of their situation, may the thought that the Spirit can breathe spiritual life into what seems dead to us also fill us with hope today.

PRAYER: Dear God, please come into the discouraging things, the disappointments and areas of my life that are dead with Spirit breath of life. And we remind You of our loved ones that appear spiritually dead. Please revive them with Your breath of spiritual life. Amen.
* New Spirit-Filled Life Bible study notes on Ezekiel authored by Howard M. Ervin, p. 1098.


Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezekiel 34-36; Psalm 41

TO CHEW ON: "I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment." Ezekiel 34:16

The book, Journey on the Hard Side of Miracles by Dr. Steven Stiles is an account of one California church's youth group during the Hippie era.

Stiles, the youth pastor at a small church in Santa Cruz, had a heart for youth, the homeless, street people, and the addicted. His passion for street ministry led to the purchase of several old school buses that the youth used for outreach. Under his leadership the youth department grew till it rivaled the size of the main congregation. Not surprisingly, though, the edginess of the ministry led to conflict.

Eventually the senior pastor who was solidly behind Stiles and his evangelistic style was replaced by a man who was much more traditional. He had the ear of the old guard.  One day a board meeting changed everything for Stiles and his band of Jesus People. Here's what happened in Stiles' own words:

"As the end game developed, a final squeeze was put on the youth group. A formal demand was made requiring change in the ministry's basic identity. 'Too Christ-centered,' some critics said. Others voiced their opinions as well: 'Too much time doing worship and devotions, and not enough recreation.' 'Too much use of the Bible and not enough use of denominational material.' 'Too much time together.' 'There's a problem with undesirables.'

Having been unable to jettison the flood of young people that were arriving for help and fellowship, the new church board decided to let us know with final clarity that the youth ministry as it then existed was not wanted" -  Steven Stiles, Journey on the Hard Side of Miracles, p. 90.

I see this story as a cautionary tale. It's easy to give verbal support to reaching the lost. But if your church has ever had a ministry to street people, addicts, and those in recovery, you will know that it is messy and does threaten the status quo.

How do we react when we find derelicts, former or current addicts, and those living in halfway houses sitting next to us in church, sometimes in loud conversation during the service, taking numerous trips outside for smokes, ourselves aware that we have to watch our purses because valuables have been known to go missing?

These things have happened in our church. I can understand the reaction of those California traditionalists trying to take back control. However, it is so against the heart of the Good Shepherd as Ezekiel describes him:

"I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment." Ezekiel 34:16

PRAYER: Dear God, please preserve me from being such a stuffy, self-righteous, self-protective anti-shepherd. I need Your compassionate shepherd-heart for the lost, hurting, bruised and sick. Amen.

MORE: Parking lot sadness
"On the night of the church board's final meeting to decide the fate of the youth ministry, a large group of young people came and waited patiently in the darkness outside. Standing in the parking lot of the church where they had come to know Jesus, they prayed and struggled to understand what was going on.

The decision of the board was finally passed on to those outside, and when the group heard the news that they were not wanted, they stood and wept. Their tears were not of rejection but of loss, for they deeply loved that church" - Steven Stiles, Journey on the Hard Side of Miracles, p. 91.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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