The Brother Behind the Brother

Nehemiah got the kudos but his brother started it:

One of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:2-3 NRSV).

What could he do about it–he, a slave in this palace far from his homeland? Cut to the quick, Nehemiah “sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4 NRSV).

As God would have it, Nehemiah’s job required him to spend up-close-and-personal time with the king. Four months after his brother’s heartbreaking news, Nehemiah could no longer put on a happy face in the king’s presence. Reacting to that no-no, King Artaxerxes asked, “‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart”’ (Nehemiah 2:2 NRSV).

After Nehemiah divulged his ancestral city’s plight, the king asked what he wanted. Nehemiah answered but not before first winging a silent prayer to heaven. “Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it’” (Nehemiah 2:5 NRSV). The king gave his leave, tacking on the caveat that Nehemiah would come back.

So Nehemiah gets the credit for rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls and gates. For lifting his countrymen out of ruin and despair. For making the Holy City a safe place to live and worship. His memoirs became a book in the Bible.

But what about his lesser-known brother, who had started the ball rolling when he carried the devastating news hundreds of miles to Nehemiah? “I gave my brother Hanani charge over Jerusalem, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel—for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many” (Nehemiah 7:2 NRSV).

Was Hanani’s ego bruised because he wasn’t noticed as much as his brother? Or did he believe and accept what Paul, the missionary apostle, later analogized:  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each” (1 Corinthians 3:7-8 NRSV)?

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David’s Darkest Valley

Time and again, David found himself in the valley of the shadow of death. While a shepherd lad, he did hand-to-paw combat with a lion and a bear. Still a stripling, he faced the giant Goliath with only a slingshot. David went on to become commander of King Saul’s troops, leading them into battles. Then he was on the run for thirteen years from the jealous, deranged king. After ascending the throne, David often went to war.

So David, throughout his life, had times of living in the valley of the shadow of death. But none of his valleys was as dark as the one he went through the night his traitorous son usurped the throne.

Surprised by a message that Absalom was heading to the capital with a revolt, he fled the palace. Brokenhearted, “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went” (2 Samuel 15:30 NRSV).

This event could have moved David to write the Twenty-Third Psalm with its ever-comforting promise, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4 KJV). Maybe he penned it then, maybe not. But there is little doubt about Psalm 3, whose superscription states that it is a psalm of David when he fled from Absalom.

During that dark valley of knowing his son desired not only his throne but also his life, David wrote:  “But you, O Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head” (Psalm 3:3 NRSV). David again mustered up confidence in God.

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The Divine Legacy

His death would come before tomorrow ended. He knew it but not the friends gathered around Him.

Nevertheless, this was the moment Jesus must leave them His legacy. Soon He would not claim even the clothes on His back. What He now gifted His nearest and dearest followers, however, no one could ever take from Him:  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27 ESV).

It wasn’t as if His disciples had never heard “peace” before. Like “aloha” in the Hawaiian language and “ciao” in Italian, “shalom” (peace) was the Jewish word used for both hello and good-bye. But mere hours before His crucifixion, Jesus bequeathed a peace that was beyond the ordinary farewell.

The peace Jesus bestowed was “my peace.” What divine peace did Jesus own and give on the eve of His death? The rock-solid peace that He was right with God. God the Son was in the will of God the Father with nothing between. They were, in the truest sense, on the same page.

Jesus’ legacy was the soul at rest with God. As St. Augustine, contemplating God’s ways, concluded, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”

 

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The Valley of No Return

Newer translations have updated the words, but it is the older text that is most often repeated by and to those who are in the valley of grief:  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 KJV). The assurance of God’s presence, protection, and guidance is consolation for the soul in sorrow.

Comfort, too, is in the phrase “through the valley.” The soul gets through the gloomy place, for God is guiding and shielding. There is, however, a valley where there is no way out: “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there . . . .” (Joel 3:2 ESV).

God is also in that valley but not as Guide and Protector. He comes there as Judge:  “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great. Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14 ESV).

The only decision made in the Valley of Jehoshaphat is God’s. Time for decisions by all others has run out. It is now the LORD’s time to hand down His verdict on their past decisions. From that valley there is no escape.

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Ethan Who?

Ethan who? Ethan the Ezrahite, that’s who! He was quite a big shot in his day, but he didn’t toot his own horn. However, he could be heard sounding a mean cymbal. And it goes without saying he was a chief choirmaster where everybody who’s anybody went to worship.

In addition, he was renown for his singing and composing. One of his songs even got published in the best-selling book of all time.

Besides being an acclaimed musician, Ethan was the wisest man ever. That is, until he was eclipsed by Solomon when he became king and God gifted him with being “wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite” (1 Kings 4:31 NIV).

Another strong Biblical personality was overshadowed by a newcomer on the scene. John the Baptist didn’t have a problem slipping to second place, however, saying of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 ESV). This itinerant preacher wisely accepted the waning of his role to prepare people’s hearts for the impending Messiah.

As the son of a priest, John the Baptist would have been familiar with the song Ethan had composed hundreds of years before his birth. No doubt he was aware of stanza six, in which Ethan the Ezrahite sang of the spiritual kingdom of the future Messiah–Jesus Christ, the Son of David, father of Solomon:

For I have sworn to David (and a holy God can never lie) that his dynasty will go on forever, and his throne will continue to the end of time. It shall be eternal as the moon, my faithful witness in the sky! (Psalm 89:36-37 TLB).

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How To Steal from God

There is something of God’s that is easy to steal. So easy that God issued a strong warning against taking it:  “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19 NASB).

Even Jesus respected His Father’s rightful ownership of revenge and did not touch it:  “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23 NIV).

No matter how much we want revenge or eye getting it as justifiable, God says, “That’s Mine. All of it. Keep your hands off!”

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Righting a Wrong

“Get out!” Darius shouted, slapping the fruit tray out of his servant’s trembling fingers. “And take those dancing girls with you!” He was in no mood for wine and women tonight. How could he–ruler of this entire empire–let himself be outsmarted? Why hadn’t he suspected their ulterior motive?

He had handpicked every one of those territorial administrators. He had no idea they would band together and back  him into a corner. He should have seen through their conspiracy before it was too late. He should have realized they were out to destroy Daniel. That they would do anything to keep him from becoming prime minister. They weren’t about to let a man of sterling integrity have access to their financial files.

So they duped Darius into signing a law that he was helpless to rescind. Not that he hadn’t tried to think of an out.

All day long, like a trapped animal, Darius twisted and turned for a way to deliver Daniel from the death sentence. When the sun set, he gave up. There was no way out. He must go through with the execution, as the cutthroat conspirators smugly reminded him:  “But these men, all ganged together, came and said to the king, ‘You must realize, Your Majesty, that the law of Media and Persia, including every law and edict the king has issued, cannot be changed’” (Daniel 6:15 CEB).

Now his most trusted advisor was locked in a pit with lions. And the only thing he could do was say to Daniel, “‘May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!’” (Daniel 6:16 ESV).

As soon as his distressful, sleepless night passed on to dawn, Darius hurried to the death chamber. There he discovered that Daniel’s God had indeed delivered him.

Darius had been outsmarted but not outsourced:

And the king commanded, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and cast into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. And before they reached the bottom of the den, the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces (Daniel 6:19 ESV).

Are we alert to doing the right thing? It is to our good that we are:  “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17 ESV).

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One Ancient Would-Be Attorney

His was an open-and-shut case. There was not a shred of evidence to convict him. Nothing would prove he had done anything wrong to warrant what happened: losing his social standing, his wealth, his health, and his children. Yes, he still had his wife. But like his friends, she, too, had turned against him . . . and worse. She yelled at him to curse God and die.

Instead, convinced his heart was pure, Job determined to stand on his oath of innocence and defend himself in the highest court. He was confident that his record would withstand God’s examination. The all-knowing Judge would acquit him, and his accusers would hear the just verdict. But when? Way too long for his thinning patience, he had been pleading for a day in court:

But I desire to speak to the Almighty  and to argue my case with God. . . . Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face. . . . Then summon me and I will answer,  or let me speak, and you reply to me (Job 13:3, 15, 22 NIV).

If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling!  I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me (Job 23:3-5 NIV).

Job did get his day in court, but he did not get the first word. The Almighty claimed that:  “And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:  ‘Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers. Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much!’”(Job 38:1-4 MSG).

With that as His opening statement, Yahweh God presented the unfathomable wonders of His Sovereignty. He exhibited His authority and power as Designer, Creator, and Sustainer. Then He examined Job:  “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:2 NIV).

The would-be attorney was slack-jawed when faced with God’s indisputable facts. Knowing he was clearly out of his league, he said:  “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4-5 NIV). Job admitted he is not God’s equal:

I’m convinced: You can do anything and everything. Nothing and no one can upset your plans. You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water, ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’ I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders way over my head (Job 42:2-4 MSG).

When, like Job, we acknowledge that God is sovereign, we rest in God’s prerogative to do whatever He wants with His creation. We trust God that He knows what He’s up to.

Who are we to question the Almighty? He has reasons embraced in His pure wisdom that may never be known to us in our finite understanding. The basic premise is:  “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8 NIV).

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Reflecting

Did the faces of the privileged three reflect what they had seen? Why not? The experience had surpassed what happened to Moses when he reflected the brilliant light of God:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30 NIV).

But that was after God had engraved the Ten Commandments on stone for the second time. Why hadn’t Moses’ face glowed when he carried the Decalogue down the mountain the first time? He had been in the presence of God then too.

Maybe Moses’ glowing face was a result of what he requested of God before the law was set in stone again. He asked to see God’s glory. And it was God’s glory that those privileged three had seen:

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light (Matthew 17:1-2 ESV).

When Jesus and His hand-picked three came down the mountain the next morning, the people “were overwhelmed with wonder” (Mark 9:15 NIV). Was that because Jesus’ face was shining residual celestial glory? Wouldn’t the faces of Peter, James, and John have looked different also even if not to the same degree? They had been in the very presence of God.

Jesus’ Transfiguration revealed to Peter, James, and John the unadulterated majesty of His divinity. Moses’ radiant face, a lesser transfiguration, beamed to his fellow Israelites that he had been with God. You and I, through drawing closer to God, can have an internal transfiguration that reflects Him in our spheres of living:

“All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEV).

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The Sober Year

Daddy did more than stay sober my eighth-grade year. He also went to church, and he went without missing a Sunday. To an outsider, sobriety and religion may look like a blissful combination. To me–an insider–it was anything but.

Words erupting from my father’s mouth in volcanic rage each inch of the mile to church were the same trash that spewed out when he was drunk. Not only was I frozen in familiar fear, I was confused. Why was he being Mr. Hyde? Daddy was sober. Why wasn’t he Dr. Jekyll?

Halfway through that year, one thing changed. A baby boy usurped my two-year-old sister’s space on Mama’s lap. My three other brothers and I still sat stony silent in the back seat while Daddy’s loud curses blanketed the newborn too.

And thus our family went to church Sunday morning after Sunday morning until my father received a pin acclaiming perfect Sunday school attendance. He seemed eerily glad when he stated, “I’m not going back. They’re a bunch of hypocrites.”

From that point on, my father attended church occasionally. His drunken sprees outnumbered those. There was one redeeming event, however, in that sober year.

It was when my mother was going to give birth to my fourth brother. She stood stoically at the stair landing, ready for Daddy to take her to the hospital. All of a sudden, she shrieked. My father rushed across the room, reached his arms around her, and moaned, “Ohhhh, does it hurt?”

That was the first time I saw Daddy embrace Mama or show her a hint of affection. His flickering tender moment for my mother has never gone out in my heart.

How true is the proverb:  “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Proverbs 14:10 ESV)!

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