Psalm 33:6–11; Ezra 5:1–6:12; Acts 28:17–31

Originally published 3/6/2017. Revised and updated 3/5/2019.

Psalm 33:6–11: In a brief summary of the Genesis story, our psalmist turns to God’s action as Creator and overseer of the affairs of humankind. In an echo of the opening verses of Genesis, we are reminded that
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of His mouth all their array.
He gathers like a mound the sea’s waters,
puts in treasure houses the deeps. (6,7)

As with so many of the psalms, speech—here God’s voice—takes center stage as the engine of creation. Of course this makes sense in a book that is all about speech as singing and poetry.

Still writing about prehistory, our poet reminds us of God’s immeasurable power that demands fear in both senses of the word:
All the earth fears the Lord,
all the world’s dwellers dread him.
 (8)

Of course even by the psalmist’s time, “all the world” had created its own small-g gods—just as our own world has. But once again, the psalmist reminds us that it was God’s utterance—not us and our little gods— that brought the world into being:
For He speaks and it came to be,
He commanded and it stood
. (9)

Notice that here we encounter God as Word; not only in other psalms but for us even more importantly in the opening verses of John’s gospel.

In a clear reference to the audacity of Babel, the poet observes that the words of men do not outrank the Word of God:
The Lord thwarted the counsel of nations,
overturned the devisings of peoples.
 (10)

Unlike the ephemerality of humankind’s pronouncements, God’s  actions and words are eternal:
The Lord’s counsel will stand forever,
His hearts’s devisings for all generation.
” (11)

In our world of information overload with data—most of it useless—coming at us from all sides; in a world of talking heads and endless pronouncements, it’s encouraging to be reminded once again that only God’s Word—and for us Christians, that’s Jesus Christ—”stands forever.” The babbling hubbub that surrounds us will eventually pass away.

Ezra 5:1–6:12: After a long while, with temple reconstruction still halted, “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them.”  (5:1) Thus encouraged, Zerubbabel, the high priest, resumes construction.

Needless to say, this action upsets the neighboring provinces, which believe that the Jews are violating the terms of Artaxerses’ decree. “Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates” (6) send a letter to King Darius reporting that the Jews are defying the long-standing order to cease rebuilding the temple. Their letter reports that the Jews are rebuilding because they have asserted after their return from Babylon, King Cyrus “made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt.” (13)

The letter goes on, quite reasonably IMHO, to ask King Darius to search the archives to see if Cyrus’ decree can be found: “if it seems good to the king, have a search made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by King Cyrus for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem.” (5:17)

Darius agrees and a search is made of the archives in Babylon, “but it was in Ecbatana, the capital in the province of Media, that a scroll was found.” (6:2) This scroll contains the decree of King Cyrus, which provides specific details about the temple to be rebuilt, including its size: “its height shall be sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits, with three courses of hewn stones and one course of timber.” (6:3, 4a)

As far as Darius is concerned, the decree of Cyrus remains in force and he writes back to Tattenai et al, “let the work on this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.” (6:7)  For having troubled the Jews, Darius continues, “the cost is to be paid to these people, in full and without delay, from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province Beyond the River.” (8)  That seems a clear rebuke to everyone in Darius’ kingdom that they had better not object to the Jewish project or they would wind up like Tattenai having to pay for it.

To ensure his decree is enforced, Darius adds, “if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill.” (11) This is truly one of the more imaginative curses to be found in the Bible!

So work on the temple resumes under royal protection and a nifty source of outside funding. But it’s worth noting that had Haggai and Zechariah not prophesied and had Zerubbabel not courageously resumed work on the temple and withstood the pressure from the surrounding provinces, the temple may never have been rebuilt.

These men trusted God and stood up for their rights in the face of fierce opposition. The question is, would I have the same faith and courage in the face of opposition? This event reminds us that trust in God is not a philosophical concept but that it must undergird our every action.

Acts 28:17–31: Now in Rome, Paul summons the “local leaders of the Jews.” (17) He outlines what has happened to him: the accusations in Jerusalem, the trial, and “the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.” (18) But, Paul continues, “when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my nation.” (19)

The Jews respond that no one in Jerusalem had written to them and “none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you.” (21), making it clear this was a local conspiracy.  In fact, they go in, “we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” (22) Needless to say, Paul is more than happy to comply with their request: “From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.” (23)

As usual, “Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.” (24) As the disagreeing parties get up to leave, Paul quotes Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes.” (26, 27)

Paul’s utters the last words in this book, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” (28) In short, the Jews have become a lost cause—truly one of the tragedies of the church. But in the end, Isaiah’s prophecy was absolutely on target.

So, we come to the end of this fascinating book. Its last words leave us with Paul who is “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” (31) And ending his long gospel and history thus, Luke makes it clear that this is also our duty.

When I was once in Rome, I was able to visit the purported site of where Paul lived under guard and taught about Jesus Christ “with all boldness.” I came away convinced that had Paul not brought the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, the world would have turned out to be far worse place than it is. In the end, it is Christianity that brought us western civilization. And the great tragedy is that we—our culture— are in the process of squandering this magnificent inheritance. But we Christians also know that in the end, the Holy Spirit lives in each of us and the church will never die.

 

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