Ezra, Nehemiah & Esther

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The settings of these books, Ezra. Nehemiah and Esther, coincide with each other during the same period.  Priest proclaimer Ezra was a cohort of Nehemiah’s in reestablishing the Jewish nation.  It wasn’t until the 15th century the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah were separated.  The connection to Queen Esther, the Jewess wife of the King  Ahasuerus (aka Xerxes)  who begot Artaxerxes the ruler Nehemiah served, makes Esther a possible (step?)grandmother to this king?  King Artaxerxes’s (during the time period 445 BC) sympathy for the Jews no doubt was because of his familiarity with grandmother Esther’s bravery (time period of 486-465 BC).  It’s speculated she may have had something to do with Nehemiah’s position as a cupbearer to the King.

Ezra’s book picks up where he left off in Chronicles with the account of the Jewish nation regathering toward their restoration to their place in God’s will in Jerusalem and the reconstruction of the temple. Through his writing, Ezra declares the Israelites are still God’s people and that He has not forgotten them.  The book’s namesake is a direct descendant of Aaron, Moses brother, and is a chief priest.  The setting is in 490 BC.

A committed Ezra reteaches the covenant law, taking it from a monopoly of the priesthood and democratizing it by instructing the people. His initial work in the city paved the ways for others in restoring the temple.  Ezra displayed the attributes that are a snapshot of Jesus, the Savior of a nation’s religious life in a critical period of Israelite history.  He was a priest proclaiming freedom.   An example of Jesus is seen through Ezra works of restoration for the people.

He shares the benefits of rebuilding the temple, the unification of the returning tribes sharing common struggles and challenges as they work together.  After the first remnant of dispersed Jews left Persia and came back to Jerusalem a spiritual apathy lead to procrastination. They lost motivation and stopped work on the restoration of the temple.  Ezra shows up with another two thousand people sparking a revival. By the end of the book, Israelites had renewed its covenant with God by their returning to obedience to Him.

Before this, though, God moved the hearts of secular rulers, notably King Cyrus, of Persia.  This king permitted, encouraged and provided building costs to be paid out of his royal treasury, for the Jewish people to return home.  Cyrus was a patron and deliverer of the Jews.

A prophecy, predating King Cyrus decision, is found in the Book of Isaiah predicting this decree of freeing the Jews from captivity. Recorded two hundred years before Cyrus lived, Isaiah 41:25, wrote that God will use a ruler “from the north,” who will show benevolence and rescue the Jews from captivity. In Isaiah, it says “This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him… ‘I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me’ ” (Is. 45:1-4). Evincing His sovereignty over all nations, God says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please.” (Is. 44:28).   King Cyrus’ action was done regionally, but it points to Jesus who does it worldwide.

King Cyrus, known for his advancement of human rights, his brilliant military strategy, and his bridging of Eastern and Western cultures is a king of tremendous influence and one God uses him in fulfillment of to this prophecy.

One speculation as to the motivation of why Cyrus’ releases the Jews from Babylon is the idea that Cyrus was a follower of Zoroastrianism, a religion founded in Persia in the 6 BC.  This religion is based on light (good) and dark (bad) playing a dominant spiritual role.   As such, he would have felt a kindred spirit and could relate to the monotheistic Jews.  Here is one of the ways God answers prayer: through providence or circumstances.

Those events include people or things that contribute to other things causing God’s will to prevail. When buying our first home, a new job presented itself to replace our main source of income.  Trying not to get our hopes up we thought there might be a risk of mortgage consideration of the bank wanting one-year stabile income in a position.  Circumstances came together, and we were approved. That may sound trivial or circumspect, but God works in all areas of our lives.  It happens so often that we don’t acknowledge or think the outcome is because of His will for us.

In the New Testament, Paul gives the metaphor of the Fruit of the Spirit that develops over time and guides us.  That fruit covers the landscape of life:  professionally, in relationships, in attitude and outlook.  Irish poet W.B. Yates said the intellect is forced to choose between the perfection of life or work.  That statement for me is a big “I don’t know?” I would like to have both my life and work simultaneously congruent but my experience of doing both well is not always apparent. Liberal Christian Huston Smith quotes a measure of comfort from a nine-year old’s prayer: “Dear God, I am doing the best I can.” Fruit of the Spirit is attainable by all through work as it has to do with the development of a person’s character not to be confused with spiritual gifts which have to do with service. We all are anointed with certain talents.

We will never reach perfection, but the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  These are listed in contrasted after citing the works of the flesh that was rampant. We are human, we make mistakes. But we don’t have to continue those same mistakes.   Now and then, the most unlikely sources like King Cyrus, who do not hold the same spiritual beliefs, come along and are influential in the turn of events.  The Bible even cites the use of a donkey (or was it a jackass?) ridden by Balaam the prophet in the book of Numbers being the catalyst to turn events around (Nm. 22:28).

From  C. S. Lewis’ book  The Screwtape Letters:

“The devil encourages his nephew in training to “Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control…keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain…. Ensure the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there’ in the ‘broken system’ rather than recognizing there is a problem with himself.”

I am most comfortable having at least three options made available when making a political choice or decision, like the way our government judicial system is set up as checks and balance.  I don’t care for the polarity created by a choice of either/or.  I dislike making a decided vote based on choosing the lesser of two evils between the people running for the position.  So, I’m sorry I’m not sorry that I occasionally vote for a non-major or third party candidate.   Many say a third-party vote disrupts things in our duopoly system, causing swing votes that could skew results.   I think the duopoly of our system is becoming forced upon us in this country and it is in practice as part of the politico’s propaganda for continuation.

One of my reasons to exercise my right to vote is because if I do not then I, in fairness, forfeit the privilege to express my views verbally.   If not voting, then I am no better than a bystander who does not act when needed to report a crime or aid someone in distress and fall in league with him. It falls under the same category of complaining about a gift you receive yet you do not reciprocate by giving gifts.  U.S. voting is not compulsory. In Australia, voters are taxed for not voting. That country reportedly has over a 90% voter turnout rate.  Voting is an American civic right and responsibility, not a duty as some proclaim.  As many of the rights afforded Americans, it does not mean I engage or participate in every one of them (for example exercising my freedom of speech and saying anything I want wherever I want or whether I carry a gun or not).

Like each generation before me (and to come after me) it is an enigma to try and figure out how the heck some candidates ever get nominated?  These candidates present how they would go about handling situations at the state and local level then as the election date draws near, contenders turn it into a personality contest with defamations thrown at their opposition.  Then there is the quandary of the curious mindset of supporters who rally behind the candidates to get them nominated?   Once I knew someone (a lactation consultant) who told me, almost apologetically, she voted for a candidate because his wife breastfed their children.  Unfortunately, there is no literacy or competency measure for a voter.

In the mid-1960’s, voter literacy tests (mainly done in the south) were deemed unconstitutional because of the implications of racism.   Whose to know what a person thinks when they go to vote (or buy a gun or mimic some headline as their own thought).  How do we know if there is not some mental illness of an individual at play who demands the right to bear arms or in segregating races between them and us?

I do not read in the Word of God any form of government He advocates but we are to submit to our ruling government and laws. God “changes the times and seasons; He deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; He knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with Him.” (Dan. 2:21-22).  Consider how God’s purposes might have been temporarily thwarted if Esther or Rahab did not make themselves available to His will, or if Daniel had not served in Babylon, Joseph not served under Pharaoh, or if Cyrus had not been king?   It might not be a specific candidate or law I can endorse, but I can pray that somewhere, someone is in that place working towards God’s plans.  A biblical reminder in Romans 8:31-39 says tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword…nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. I rest in the fact that God will work it out.  We know all things come together and work for the good for those that love God, to them who are the called to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).

Ezra’s cohort, Nehemiah, is chosen by God to build a wall around Jerusalem.   His name means Jehovah comforts.  The book is believed to be autobiographical  with some excepts written by priest/scribe Ezra.

Nehemiah rose to the royal cupbearer position in service to the Persian King Artaxerxes.  He would be the taste tester for the King to avoid any poisoning from conspirators.  This position lent itself to a closeness to the King, with Nehemiah eventually becoming his confidant.  After receiving permission from the King, Nehemiah left his post in the high court to step down as a laborer or construction worker first before he was granted the level of a governorship.

In Nehemiah, we can further see a Jesus trait that restores the broken.  This narrative is about the restoration of Jerusalem (by repairing the wall around the city and initiating spiritual reform) just as Jesus restores our emotional and spiritual brokenness.

The longest prayer in the O.T., is Nehemiah chapter nine. Prayer and leadership are  associated with the character of Nehemiah.  God uses him to motivate and direct a small group to build a protective wall (done in fifty-two days) amongst adversarial  enemies surrounding  them.  Chapters five and six exemplifies his struggles (with his own people as well as outsiders) and the sacrifices he personally made to be more than fair his people.  Writer Jim George says serving others prepares you to lead others.  With Ezra’s help he initiated reform and  re-establish a Godly government.  Nehemiah also serves as an example of a lay person serving in a new place God calls him. God who doesn’t always call the equipped, but always equips who He calls.


Prayer and leadership are usually associated with the character of Nehemiah.  God uses him to motivate and direct a small group to build a protective wall (done in 55 days) from enemies surrounding around Jerusalem and then he helped Ezra re-establish a Godly government.  Nehemiah also serves as an example of a lay person serving in a new place God calls him. God who doesn’t always call the equipped, but always equips who He calls.

In his book “Hand Me Another Brick,” author and minister Chuck Swindoll breaks down the aspects of leadership. It is a blueprint on leadership and integrity shown through the example of prayer, hard work, and faithful acts of Nehemiah.

When Nehemiah and crew began to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, opposition and criticism came from all sides.  Once built, a celebration of thanksgiving was warranted.  Not only did they clear away brick and mortar rubble but also the ruins of wrong thinking, and old patterns of living were replaced by a restoration of obedience towards God and covenant Law.  This biblical example of the spiritual renovation occurring simultaneously as the work showing a win/win situation.

Unfortunately, I have experienced, after doing an event built on the backs of volunteers, the absence of a celebration for a job well done. That would be my fault (or my bad as the kids say)  for the latter when I was in the leadership role. At best, there is a post-meeting to include an after-action report, with the final follow-up including a few “attaboys” thrown in for good measure but not a celebration.  Instead, we would rush to begin the next assignment. Why celebrate?  Imagine a gifting of presents to others throughout the day, every day, and never hearing the words “thank you.” The text of chapter 12: 27-43 tells of the joy and gratitude expressed to God for bringing them, co-laborers with him, to a place of achievement.  The celebration is for the many hands that divided the task to multiply its success.  If there is no celebration of talents, then there is a danger that one person, the leader, ending up with all the credit.  The only payment a volunteer receives is the acknowledgment that their work is appreciated.  Studies have shown paid employees, compensated financially, rank verbal appreciation and recognition as more rewarding.  A person appreciated will always do more than what is expected.   The celebration is not only to thank the volunteer but to also acknowledge God in his providence (Ps. 46:10).

Without thinking, I once stupidly tried to bribe one of my kids with $100 if he would set a personal running record.  I was searching for a way to get him to compete against himself, to self-improve.  He never commented on it, but now in retrospect, I think it disturbed and confused him.  As if he would only do it for money instead on his terms.   As parents, we later offered an incentive of $1000 to each of our kids if they got all the way through high school without using recreational drugs or drinking, to be bestowed on them after graduation night. (we were slow learners in trying to instill the right character attributes and motivation in our children).  They could spend their money on anything they wanted.  In retrospect, we would have given them a more than significant gift at graduation, probably worth that much (a computer, for example, to take to college).  All the kids took us up on the incentive and received it.

I am most comfortable providing leadership from the middle of the group, often it is that place (in the middle of management chain, in event planning, or classroom), I find myself or as Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu says “to lead people is to walk behind them.”  Leading from the back of the line works well for me as a teacher watching the students through the hallways.

South African anti-apartheid leader and then president for 6 years, Nelson Mandela further describes it: “I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd.  He stays behind the flock, letting the nimblest go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Nothing is more distasteful or ugly than the carefully camouflaged self-serving kind of leadership smothered in feigned humility.

King David led from the middle.  This kind of leadership affords the opportunity to be of influence with two sets of people:  upper management and the team surrounding the endeavor.

One definition of leadership is the person in charge has the vision, and the manager is the one who knows how to get there.  That may be accurate, but woe is the leader depending on the manager without giving him guidance. This was discovered, when it once backfired, at a farewell ceremony for a project leader.  Each one of his staff gave him a pooper scooper (the shovel used to clean up after pets) when they shared their farewell toast in the modern trend of a roast.  The message seemed loud and clear; the leader had assigned tasks not knowing how or what it took to achieve it. The managers,  who clean up after the boss to assure the success of the mission, used a scooper to communicate their message.  Bless the leader’s  heart, he was clueless of the message instead of seeing it as an attempt at being funny gone bad.  Years later, I witnessed this same person’s retirement ceremony. He choreographed and self-sponsored his own ceremony and how he wanted to be seen. I was embarrassed for him. It was gratuitous at best.  He couldn’t see that his actions spoke louder than his expression of self-appreciation (1Jn. 3:18).

It is not always possible to work alongside people as the leader, but worth the effort to get an accurate picture of what is asked of them to get the job done.  There is something to be said about being a guide on the side versus the sage on the stage.

As the middle child, out of five children, coupled with being the youngest daughter in my birth family, I characteristically fell into the role of peacekeeper, and naturally, work from a center point.

Being a middle child is a love-hate relationship for me because I have the feeling of being invisible among others, not just with my siblings.  As of recent, most of the feeling of a lack of visibility is in getting older.  I find I have to work twice as hard to stay half a relevant as Sharon Greenthal sayings her digital writings entitled Empty House Full Mind. This advantage of invisiblilia created a platform for me learn how to do random acts of kindness, to serve, to quietly make a change, to more fully observe what is happening.

When asked what the most difficult instrument in the orchestra is, conductor Leonard Bernstein responded, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play second fiddle with enthusiasm – that’s a problem; and if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

It is through many my failed attempts on how to make a wood fire sustain its burning that I finally achieved a successful fire.  I learned to separate the small logs of wood so air can get between them instead of packing it so tightly that the fire suffocated.  Slowing down to celebrate can be represented in the air between the logs.  It can come in the form of the celebration after the event; it’s a created space to slow down to acknowledge and appreciate accomplishments.

When a nonprofit venture has a faith-based budget, it usually means there isn’t necessarily guaranteed sustainable revenue to keep the doors open and the project going.  I have been fortunate to be in this learning environment for spiritual growth while working with a grassroots startup of an afterschool mentoring program and I later managed.  It was rewarding to see how things would come together and the doors stayed open through generous donations, volunteers, some grants and occasionally benefactors.  The successful outcome is a testimony we were working on a plan God is blessing.  That’s the sweet spot to serve, not unlike where Nehemiah was in rebuilding the wall. In this book, this ministry was bathed in prayer, initially covered at a meeting once a week by a group on site during the renovation.  The site was upgraded from an old ice cream parlor/pharmacy.  Its walls were freshly painted, books and computers donated, plumbing updated and new carpeting installed with the original ice cream counter and its swivel stools serving as the refreshment area.  This types of budgets are not an excuse for disorder or failure to plan.

An invaluable lesson when I volunteered in this afterschool program, I was not equipped for how emotionally I would get involved with the students.  I would bring those emotions home with me, unable to separate myself from it.  I stopped after six months when I felt extreme compassion fatigue.  A man on the advisory board and I discussed it.  He said that when I struggled with situations happening in the children’s home which was out of my control that instead I should consider the faces of the children and look for Jesus.  Word somewhat akin to what French poet and writer Victor Hugo says: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Jesus cannot be contained in the nice neat image I have for him.  He can be seen in everyone because he cannot be contained in a specific persona of a population or culture in the world.  It almost goes without saying:  He can be represented through each person.  When I looked for a trace of Jesus in someone, I can connect with them and not their situation.  It points to how we need to view humanity as we are all together in this thing called life.

This transitions to the next book: Esther.  This narrative is an account of a believer in a foreign environment. The environment was hostile to God’s covenants showing examples of principal characters adjusting their lives accordingly without compromise. We may live in a different era yet can still find ourselves in life situations with challenges and choices that can compromise our faith walk. Esther is an illustration of how to live out our faith in daily without compromise. Jesus is exemplified through Esther who interceded for people.

This  narrative’a  cast includes Esther, King Artaxerxes, first wife Vashti, Haman (the king’s evil second-in-command), and Esther’s Uncle Mordecai. Esther and Mordecai, along with other Jews, chose not to make the return trek back to Judah when the temple was being rebuilt.  This puts Esther as a contemporary of  These Jews seemed relatively content to stay in Susa, the capital city of Persia.  These Jews, who lived outside of Palestine, were known as the Diaspora or the remnant.

Ironically Esther is a contemporary of Ezra’s and Nehemiah who were dead set against intermarriage.  Here was Esther, a wife of a King picked out of a a beauty pageant with contestants  from his harem.  There wasn’t a lot she could do about her situation at the time.

Someone of the court is thought to have written this book. Esther represents the Jews of Diaspora, who were not in a position of power nor had a say in national events.   As an orphan, Esther was separated from her parents; just like the Diaspora who were orphaned from their mother-country. With both these things (orphan, refuge) against her, she was also a woman in a harem.  She had to use every skill and advantage she had.

The purpose of this narrative is to explain the celebration of the Feast of Purim and also in giving the Jews permission to protect themselves. Critics abound with criticism about the Jews   killing some 76,000 people but it was kill or be killed, it was a war based on edicts by the Persian King. The latter edict, encouraged by Esther to the King, was a plea for her people, who were facing a holocaust, to defend themselves.   Esther  is never mentioned again in the Bible outside of this book . Her book is one of about four never mentioned in the New Testament.  But the nonMoasic  festival (Purim) is celebrated annually to this day  Some question the historicity of the book of Esther,  but on this side of  WWII and the Nazi pogroms, her account has a historical reality to it.

Esther’s providential presence had to survive not only during the oppression of women but the deadly intrigue within the Persian royal court and the threat of genocide of her people.  Interestingly this is one of two books of the Bible where God’s name is never mentioned (the other is the Song of Solomon), yet His omnipotence is present.  Esther is a reminder that  God is still sovereign even when life doesn’t make sense.

Paul, in 1Corinthians 9:19-23 wrote:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), to win those under the law.  To those not having the law, I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the Gospel that I may share in its blessings.”

It appears Esther did just that.  Her uncle encouraged her when she was put in the harem then honored later by becoming a Queen with the reminder she was put in this place for “moment such as this?” (Est. 4:14).   Who hasn’t been haunted by those words when making a big decision?

Ironically Esther as a contemporary of Ezra’s and Nehemiah who were dead set against intermarriage marries a foreigner.  Here was Esther, a wife of a King picked out of a a beauty pageant with contestants  from his harem.  There wasn’t a lot she could do about her situation at the time.

Legend attributes St. Francis of Assisi of saying: “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.”

She had the King’s ear and could tell him about the Haman’s plot. The catalyst for Haman’s scheme came when Mordecai refused to bow down to him. With wounded ego, Haman figured out Mordecai was Jewish and decided to take his vengeance out on all Jews by exterminating them. He told the king about these Jews whose laws were different than theirs, with them not observing the king’s laws, therefore “it is not befitting for the king to tolerate them.” Mordecai previously had exposed a murder plot against the King saving his life, but at the moment it slipped the King’s mind. The King issued an edict to satisfy Haman wish.

Mordecai, again, and Queen Esther foil Haman’s plot. This event of the final deliverance is commemorated today in the celebration the Feast of Purim. Haman’s original plan was to cast a lot, called “pure,” (where the name Purim comes from) to determine the extermination day of the Jews (Est. 3:7–9).

Comparatively Esther acts similarly to Paul in another way.  She looked for common ground with other people, building a bridge between herself and others like he did when he was speaking to the people of Athens.  Paul commends the Greeks of his era for being religious. They were inclusive kind of people acknowledging many Gods as if having multiple insurance policies for numerous contingencies.  He elucidates on one of their altars with the inscription: to an unknown god (Acts 17: 21).   Paul knew most of the audience had a spectator attitude obsessed with novelty and originality.  Later in Hebrews 13:9 he warns of strange teachers.  He tries though to extrapolate enough from their beliefs to build a bridge to the truth behind this unknown god by saying it is the all-inclusive one: Jesus, the one who ultimately can meet all their needs.

It is one thing to talk the talk but walking the walk is another.  It takes perspective to develop and confidently follow a foundational moral compass.  This books shows a triumph over a troubling situation.

In my comings and goings around people, particularly when I am not on unconscious autopilot of errands, I often wonder later what if I am the last example of a Christian to that person?  Would I be called out as a believer in Jesus? Are my words and actions Jesus like? Like Esther, am I in a situation for just a “moment such as this?”


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