Week 71 - Read Isaiah 40-55
Key Concepts: The key concept is that God announces that Israel has been punished enough and now the return from exile will begin.
Stories: This section of Isaiah begins with an announcement that God is ready to restore Israel, and continues with a declaration of God as creator, the judgment of the nations who oppressed Israel, the First Servant Song, a prediction of God’s victory, a reminder of Israel’s sins, the restoration of Israel, a caustic look at idolatry, the commission of Cyrus of Persia as messiah, the conversion of the nations, lamentation over Babylon, the Second Servant Song, more on restoration, the importance of the Covenant, the Third Servant Song, coming salvation for the children of Abraham, God’s kingship, the Fourth Servant Song, assurance to Israel, and a song of joy.
Brief Summary: While there is still some debate, especially within more evangelical circles, that Isaiah is a single book, the majority of scholars believe Isaiah is three books written at three different times. This portion of Isaiah, often called Second Isaiah, is a transitional book. It begins with the power of Babylon waning and the power of Persia growing. This dates the book sometime around 550 BCE. There are several important themes contained with these chapters.
The first theme is that of God as creator and ruler of the entire universe. The writer of Second Isaiah is confident that YHWY is not simply one God among many competing for domination. The God of Israel is the one and only God. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” (40:28) “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (44:6-7) What this means is that while Babylon and her gods may believe they are powerful, they are mere putty in God’s hands. Thus everything that happened to Israel was God’s doing.
The second theme is that of forgiveness and restoration. The writer makes it clear that a time has come when Israel has served its time and God will restore her fortunes. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (40:1-2) “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” (51:3) Even though the people had not yet returned to the Promised Land, these words were intended to give them hope.
The third theme is that of the servant. This portion of Isaiah contains four songs which refer to a servant who will save Israel. There is great debate about the nature of the servant, whether it is an individual or the entire nation. Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (42:1) “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;” Christianity has argued that these songs point to Jesus and his work on the cross.
1. What do you make of Cyrus the Persian being called a messiah?
2. What does the theme of forgiveness and restoration tell you about God?
3. Where do you find echoes of Jesus’ ministry in the servant songs?
Week 72 - Read Ezra 1-6
Key Concepts: The key concept is that God will fulfill God’s promise to restore the people.
Stories: The stories in this section begin with an edict by Cyrus of Persia, gifts for refurnishing the Temple, a census covering the first return, the initial rebuilding of the Temple, the growing opposition to the Temple construction and the completion of the Temple.
Brief Summary: Ezra is a composition by the writers of Chronicles. It takes up the story of God’s people where 2 Chronicles leaves off with a reference to Cyrus of Persia allowing the people of Judah to return home. In order to bring us all up to speed, the Persians under Cyrus, initially defeated the Median Empire (550 BCE) and then the Babylonian Empire (539 BCE) absorbing both into his empire. Cyrus and the Persians dealt with their captured peoples in very different ways from either the Assyrians or Babylonians. Both of those empires were cruel and oppressive masters demanding not only taxation but allegiance to the conquerors’ national gods. The Persians on the other hand believed that each part of their Empire should worship its own national deities. What this meant for Judah was that not only would Cyrus send the exiles home, but that he would assist them in the rebuilding of the YHWH cult in Jerusalem.
The exiles had been in Babylon for close to fifty years since coming to Babylon in waves between 609 – 587 BCE. What this meant was that many of God’s people had found a home there and were not looking forward to returning to a land which had been left in utter ruins half a century before.
There was however a group led by Sheshbazzar, a prince of Judah, which returned and brought with them many of the Temple vessels which had been taken by the Babylonians. The group consisted of about 42,000 people including priests and Levites, though a different number is given in Nehemiah.
Once in the land, the people built an altar in the ruins of Jerusalem. They also began to rebuild the Temple, but gave up on this effort for unknown reasons. A second group of exiles arrived and under their leader Zerubbabel took up the effort to rebuild the Temple. When the foundation of the Temple was completed the response was mixed. Those who had seen the original Temple wept, while others who had never seen it shouted with joy.
The rebuilding of the Temple was not without opposition. Those nations who opposed the restoration of Judah attempted to interfere with the rebuilding process. They hired counselors in Persia to frustrate the rebuilding and wrote letters to the Persian court accusing the Jews of rebuilding the city in order to rebel. These efforts cause the Persian government to halt all building operations. Finally under King Darius the scribes in Persia found records from Cyrus’ reign where he had approved the building. This allowed building to resume and the Temple was completed in 516 BCE. Upon completion of the Temple the people not only offered sacrifices but celebrated the Passover.
As we will see in future readings this was not the end of the problems faced by those who had returned to Judah.
1. How does the restoration of Judah lend credence to earlier prophetic utterances?
2. Why do you think people would choose to stay in Babylon rather than return to Judah?
3. Why do you suppose other nations tried to keep Judah from rebuilding?
Week 73 - Read Nehemiah 1-7; Ezra 7-10
Key Concepts: The key concept is that God will fulfill God’s promise to restore the people.
Stories: Nehemiah contains stories of Nehemiah’s request to the King of Persia to return and rebuild Jerusalem, the Kings agrees, Nehemiah’s inspection of the wall, his organizing the rebuilding of the wall, the opposition of enemies to the rebuilding, and finally the successful completion of the task. Ezra tells the story of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem, his depression at the state of intermarriage among the Jews with foreigners, his demand that all Jews put away their foreign wives and the Jews agreement to do so.
Brief Summary: As we look at these passages we need to put them in order so that the story of the Jews return to the land can be seen in its appropriate phases. The initial phase took place under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, who began to rebuild the Temple (ca. 538) but could not complete it because of local opposition. The next group returned sometime between 538 and 522 BCE and was led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Though they too encountered opposition, they were encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and were able to complete the Temple in 515 BCE. Even with the Temple completed the city of Jerusalem was largely uninhabited because its walls still lay in ruins.
The story of Nehemiah begins in 445 BCE. He is the cupbearer to the King of Persia, and hears news from Jerusalem about how dire were the circumstances of his fellow Jews. Though he understands the reasons for the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (1:6-10) he still prays that God would grant him the opportunity to return and help reestablish the capital. He risks everything by asking permission of the King Artaxerxes to return and rebuild Jerusalem. Nehemiah is granted permission to return and rebuild which he proceeds to do, carrying with him letters from the king.
As with previous returnees his mission is opposed by the nations around him. Those opposed to his work of rebuilding the walls of the city plan attacks on the work, try to trick Nehemiah into meeting them outside the city so they can kill him, and then even conspire to assassinate him. None of these efforts are successful because Nehemiah is an extraordinarily wise man (which is shown by the fact that he had risen through the politics of the Persian court to serve the king). In the end the walls are rebuilt and Jerusalem is once again a place for Jews to feel safe.
The second half of the book of Ezra picks up the story at this point. Even though the people had a city and a Temple they were still rather unfaithful and were not being obedient to the Law in either their Temple worship or their daily lives. Ezra appears to be called by God in order to deal with these issues. Ezra is a scribe, a religious lawyer, who knows and obeys the Law. Ezra can take with him any of the priests or Levites who are still in Persia. He is also given permission to enforce the religious laws contained within the Torah, with permission to do whatever is necessary (death, banishment, confiscation or imprisonment) to enforce those laws.
One of the great issues faced by Ezra was intermarriage. The people of God had married non-Jews and these marriages were causing Jews to worship other gods. For Ezra this is a shock because the Jews in exile had been careful to only marry within the faith in order to maintain their identity. Ezra calls the people together and the men pledge to divorce their wives (and abandon their children) who are non-Jewish. Though not all do so many comply with this demand.
1. Why do you believe that the Jews had such a longing to return to the Judah?
2. How would you describe Nehemiah and how does he exemplify and good leader?
3. What do you make of Ezra’s focus on intermarriage? Where do you see that as a continuing issue within the Jewish community today?e to edit.
Week 74 - Read Nehemiah 8-13; Malachi
Key Concepts: The key concept is that God will fulfill God’s promise to restore the people.
Stories: This section begins with the appearance of Ezra who is asked to read the Law to the people, the people understand, the people celebrate the Feast of Booths, make a communal confession , separate themselves from foreigners, Ezra retells the story of Abram, Moses, the people in the wilderness, the conquest of the land, the loss of the land, the nation’s continuing sin, the making of a new covenant with God to support the Temple, census lists, dedication of the walls of Jerusalem, and actions taken during the second administration of Nehemiah. Malachi writes about the priests’ unacceptable practices, God’s desire for marital faithfulness, the coming messiah and day of judgment, God’s blessing waiting for the return of the people and the salvation of true worshippers in the judgment.
Brief Summary: The second half of Nehemiah is the conclusion of both Ezra and Nehemiah. Here you find these leaders working together to direct the life of the people of God. The Temple has been rebuilt as have the walls of the city. It is time then for the people to reorient their lives to God and to God’s Law. What we need to remember is that the people who had been left in the land during the Babylonian exile had only loosely followed the law. Additionally the priests who had returned to the land prior to Ezra’s return were lax in the performance of their duties. For Ezra this was unacceptable.
Ezra, evidently with Nehemiah’s blessing, gathers the people together in order to both read the Law and then to retell the great story of God’s people. Each of these is critical to the future of the Jewish people. The Law matters because it is the set of regulations which will assist the people in maintaining not only appropriate worship but in maintaining their identity as a people. It will ensure that the Jewish people are not absorbed into the nations around them.
The story matters because it first reminds the people of all that God has done for them, and second it reminds the people of why they find themselves in such a difficult situation. This story also serves as a warning as to what happens to those who do not obey the Law.
In response to these acts the people celebrate the Festival of Booths (one of the three great Jewish feasts) and commit themselves not only to be obedient to the Law but to supporting the Temple through their gifts. The Levites recommit themselves to the service of God. The conclusion of this book has Nehemiah driving out non-Israelites from the Temple area, insuring that the Levites get their appropriate pay, stopping Jews from working on the Sabbath, closing the city gates on the Sabbath so foreigners can’t sell on the Sabbath and then trying to force Jews to cease marrying foreigners.
The prophet Malachi (though that may not be his actual name) served during this period of restoration. His concerns were similar to those of Ezra and Nehemiah. Malachi criticizes the priest for being lax in their observance of sacrificial regulations. He then places a curse on them if they do not return to appropriate practices. Malachi continues by reminding the people that marriage is to be held in honor (evidently men were divorcing their wives without cause). The prophet then offers a vision of a messenger of the covenant who will judge the people. This judgment will be like a refiner’s fire. He will judge those who violate all aspects of the law including oppressing workers and mistreating orphans and widows. The people are then encouraged to return to God in order that they survive the judgment.
1. How might we as Christians maintain our identity separate from the culture around us?
2. How does the exclusiveness of Ezra/Nehemiah contrast with the inclusiveness of Abram being given the promise that through him all nations would be blessed?
3. How might you relate Jesus to Malachi’s role as messenger of the covenant?
Week 75 - Read Haggai; Zechariah 1-8
Key Concepts: The key concept is that God will act if the people are faithful.
Stories: Haggai begins with a complaint from God that God’s temple has not been built followed by a speech encouraging the people to rebuild the Temple, the lack of grandeur of the new Temple, God’s promise to restore the fortunes of Israel, the promise of a greater Temple, a reminder that the people are ritually unclean, the promise that God will bless the people when the foundation of the Temple is laid and concludes with a promise that Zerubbabel will be God’s new king over Judah. The first half of Zechariah includes a call to repentance, eight visions, the crowning of a messianic figure, a question about fasting and finally a promise that God will return to Zion and bless Judah.
Brief Summary: Haggai is a prophet whose work we can clearly locate in the history of the people of Israel. Haggai is a contemporary of Zechariah, Ezra and Zerubbabel who all worked together during the period of the Jews return to Israel. Many scholars give credit to Haggai as being the leader of the movement to rebuild the Temple. The opening of Haggai tells us that the people were not yet ready to rebuild the Temple. While we are not sure of the exact reasons, all efforts at restoration had failed. Regardless, when Haggai arrives he declares that God has brought about a drought because the people have not rebuilt the Temple and returned to appropriate worship. He then encourages them to begin the process again….and they do.
As the Temple was being rebuilt there was great discouragement because the new Temple was only a shadow of its former self…and was taking a long time to build.
Haggai promises the people that if they continue, God will return and “shake the nations” in order that all of the wealth of the world would flow to Israel. The prophet wants to be sure however that the people understand that they are still sinful and it is God’s grace alone that will bring them blessing, not simply the rebuilding of the Templs. Haggai also tells the people that Zerubbabel will be made King over Israel, though this never happens.
Zechariah, as mentioned above was a contemporary of Haggai. His book is a transition piece from ancient Israelite prophecy, to apocalyptic literature (a particular genre of literature in which heaven and earth are merged in a cosmic struggle). Apocalyptic was a product of the exile and came to full flower following the return of the exiles. Zechariah’s eight visions are examples of this genre. Each is composed of symbolic images. These include mystical riders, Satan, lampstands, flying scrolls, and chariots with different colored horses. Angels are often the intermediaries who explain the visions. What is interesting about these visions (many of which we will encounter again in Revelation) is that they are linked to specific events and people. The high priest Joshua and Zerubbabel are specifically mentioned in some of the visions. Later apocalyptic will not do this.
In the midst of these visions Zechariah is also given some very practical instructions for the people as well. In Chapter 7 a delegation of returnees wants to know if they should continue to fast for the destruction of the Temple, since it is now rebuilt. Zechariah instructs them, on God’s command, that fasting for the Temple or not is not an important issue. What matters far more is that they are obedient to the Torah and care for those who cannot care for themselves. This portion of the book concludes with God’s promise that God is returning to Jerusalem and will bless Judah…very much like the ending of Haggai.
1. What do you make of the connection between building the Temple and God’s blessing?
2. How is Haggai’s leadership role reflected in your understanding of the role of pastors today?
3. What is your response to the apocalyptic images of Zechariah?
Week 76 - Read Isaiah 56-66; Joel
Key Concepts: God calls people to faithfulness, judgment and restoration.
Stories: Third Isaiah (the name given to this section of Isaiah) opens with several post-return proclamations then continues with complaints against corrupt leaders and idolatry, God’s denunciation of Judah’s unfaithfulness, God’s desire for justice and kindness, a call to national repentance, a proclamations of God’s restoration of Jerusalem, a pseudo-servant song, a proclamation of Zion’s restoration, a declaration of God’s judgment, a prayer of intercession, God’s response to the prayer and a set of concluding comments. Joel contains a description of a terrible locust plague, a statement about the coming Day of the Lord, a call to repentance and a second look at the Day of the Lord.
Brief Summary: Third Isaiah is called that because it is the third and last portion of Isaiah. Scholars believe that it was written during the period of return and restoration. The issue at hand with which Third Isaiah deals is that of the lack of fulfillment of the wonderful promises of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55). Second Isaiah offered a glorious vision of God’s blessings flowing to the people of Judah complete with servant songs describing the leader who would insure Israel’s complete restoration. These were high hopes. What we discover from Third Isaiah is that these hopes were not being fulfilled. Here is some of the evidence.
First there are corrupt and incompetent leaders. The writer describes them as blind watchmen, dumb dogs and shepherds who have no understanding. These leaders have looked after only themselves and their desires.
Second, there is still a lack of faithfuness among the people. Third Isaiah speaks to some of the people as “sons of the sorceress, offspring of adulterers and harlots.” The people are also accused of child sacrifice and worship of other gods. Third, the people do not live out their faith. While they might offer the appropriate sacrifices and carry out fasts in the prescribed manner they do not “loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the thong of the yoke, let the oppressed go free…share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into their homes.” In other words this new nation looks very much like the old nation. The nation is therefore once again, called to repentance. Nonetheless God will not forsake God’s people and will even invite into that community eunuchs and foreigners who will bind themselves to God.
Joel’s prophecies, like those of Isaiah were probably offered following the rebuilding of the Temple. We see this in his references not only to the Temple but to the rituals that were performed there. The initiating event for Joel’s work was a severe famine that has gripped the nation. Joel declares that the people need to fast before God. “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly…and cry to the Lord.” Joel also sees a larger catastrophe coming with the Day of the Lord, the day of judgment. “For the Day of the Lord is coming…a day of darkness and gloom; a day of thick clouds and blackness.” All is not lost however for God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.“ This is followed by God’s promise that something new is happening. “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men shall have visions…” In the end, the nations will be judged and Judah will inhabit the land forever. As with Third Isaiah, it is acknowledged that even though the returned people have not lived up to God’s call, God will still save them.
1. How do you deal with unanswered prayers?
2. Where do you see justice breaking forth in our world?
3. What do you make of the prophecy that God’s Spirit would be poured out on the world?