Welcome to the Mountjoy Ministries Blog

This blog was authored by Bryan W. Sheldon, author and Bible teacher. His books are listed below. The studies in the blog are offered in the desire that they may be helpful in directing readers to the truths contained in the Bible.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Living for God in a Dysfunctional World (Continued)

Studies in the Book of Ruth

Back in Bethlehem

The Bible says they arrived back at the time of the barley harvest which was immediately after Passover. The Feast of Firstfruits had already taken place, which meant that Israel was free to gather in the harvest. The Passover is the anniversary of a new beginning and for Ruth and Naomi, it signalled a new start - two widows placing themselves in the care of the One who cares for the widow. The Feast of Firstfruits follows the Passover to indicate that there is more blessing to come. This was to be the case with this stump of a family – more blessing to come! It will be in terms of marriage and children. It is not too strong to suggest that the journey of these two women to Bethlehem was key to the:

redemption of Naomi after the spiritual drought in Moab, and the
redemption of Israel, after the spiritual drought of the period of the Judges.

All because of the redemption of Ruth, a woman through whom God could work.

So far I have suggested that a major lesson from Elimelech’s and Naomi’s lives is that we cannot use natural energies to solve spiritual problems. The famine in Bethlehem was a small element of the wider famine in Israel, a famine of the knowledge of God and His Word. Although it was seen as a physical difficulty, it had a spiritual source: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes by going down to Moab to escape the troubles. If we find ourselves in that situation, when things have gone wrong because we have tried to escape the discipline of God; probably resulting from our backsliding (and none of us is immune from this) then the most sensible course of action is to return to the Lord. This is what Naomi did. She would teach us that whenever we stray we need to return to God, to return to where it is meaningful. Abraham strayed and went down to Egypt because of famine. There he was almost compromised but with God’s help he recovered his moral compass and returned to the altar he first built – he returned to God. The prodigal son, when he came to himself in the far country, returned to his father and home.

Often we think we must look forward, that is to press on - but if we have taken a wrong turn, then the sensible thing is to go back. “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22)

Ruth - Living for God in an Uncertain World

It must have been difficult for Ruth, coming to Bethlehem and trying to find acceptance, being a Moabite woman, considering Moab had been in conflict with Israel in the past. However, her demeanour and kindness to Naomi was noted and very quickly she was well spoken of. Also it was soon realised that, having so fully embraced the religion of Israel, she would not lead anyone astray. Now they were sheltering under the Mosaic Law, Naomi could make Ruth aware of God’s social welfare system for the poor and foreigner: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:9–10). Ruth asked Naomi for permission to glean in the fields.

Back in the stream of God’s purposes, the care and providence of God took over. She happened to choose that part of the harvest which belonged to pious Boaz, who happened to be of the kindred of Elimelech! Even though the Hebrew reads, “... her chance chanced to hit upon the field” (Ruth 2:3) we would suggest there are no coincidences with God. Remember Abraham’s servant looking for a bride for Isaac. When he met Rebekah he did not say it was a coincidence. No! He said the Lord led him to meet her: “As for me, the LORD has led me in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen” (Genesis 24:27). Remember Joseph: he recognised the hand of God in his life even though his brothers meant to do him harm. He comforted them: “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5). It cannot be merely chance that placed Ruth in the field of Boaz considering she had committed herself to be a true follower of Jehovah. The owner of the harvest, the one introduced into the biography of Ruth, is someone who, because of the providential care of God, will be her kinsman-redeemer.

Boaz is first described here as “a worthy man” (Ruth 2:1 (ESV)). The Hebrew phrase, when used of Gideon, is translated “mighty man of valour” (Judges 6:12). Boaz was capable, efficient, worthy, and lived an exemplary lifestyle. He is first seen in a beautiful pastoral scene when he visited the harvest and greeted the reapers, “The Lord be with you”, to which they responded, “the Lord bless you” (Ruth 2:4). This suggests that Boaz and his employees were true followers of Jehovah. When he saw Ruth, a stranger, perhaps dressed differently, he asked who she was. He was told she was Naomi’s daughter-in-law who had worked steadily all day to provide for her mother-in-law and herself. Boaz then demonstrated ‘hesed’ in that he spoke kindly to Ruth and permitted her to glean among the sheaves and to follow closely his female workers. He promised her protection and provided her with drinking water, the same benefits that his own workers received. He had gone beyond what the Mosaic code required of him and Ruth responded in utter humility, bowing low to the ground and asking why she should be the recipient of such grace and favour. She said, ‘You have noticed the un-noticeable’. Boaz explained, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:11,12) He did not know it at the time but God will use him to answer his own prayer in due course, that is, the Lord will show ‘hesed’ to Ruth through him. Moreover, the phrase, “under whose wings you have come to take refuge” will also be significant. Boaz offered further benefits to Ruth by encouraging her to dip her bread into the wine vinegar and share in the food provided for the workers. At the end of the day she should take home enough for Naomi also. Boaz went yet further - he instructed his reapers to purposely drop handfuls of barley for her to collect. So Ruth gleaned all day and threshed out enough grain to last some time.

She returned home in the evening with the grain she had collected and told Naomi all that had taken place who recognised the goodness of God and asked a blessing on the one who had shown such ‘hesed’ to them. When Ruth identified their benefactor, it confirmed that the hand of the Lord was directing their lives. Boaz’s offer of protection was very welcome because the time in which they lived was a time of low morals. So Ruth gleaned all through the period of the barley harvest, and on into the wheat harvest always keeping close to Boaz’s female workers. This included the period of five weeks from the Festival of Firstfruits to the Feast of Weeks. God had begun His firstfruit payment of ‘hesed’ to Ruth. What she had received from Boaz was just the first instalment with more to come, for at the end of chapter 2 there is a hint of the law of Levirate marriage when Boaz is described as a “... close relative of ours, one of our redeemers” (Ruth 2:20).

In this setting of harvest-time, the principle of harvest was working in her life. She had sown ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) and was reaping ‘hesed’ (loving kindness). Paul wrote, “… whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). This sowing and reaping is part of the cycle of life. Paul also wrote: “... let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

The emphasis of chapter one was on the qualities found in Ruth and Naomi: ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) in Ruth and repentance in Naomi.

The emphasis of chapter two was on the providence of God. Ruth happened to go to the field of Boaz, who happened to be a relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband.

Next Time: Boaz - Kinsman-Redeemer

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Living for God in an Uncertain World

Studies in the Book of Ruth

The last verse of the book of Judges is: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25); and the first verse of the book of Ruth is: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1). This places the events of the book of Ruth into the period when Israel’s experience was very unstable. There was no unity among the tribes and the worship of Jehovah was often neglected. Times of apostasy were followed by periods of discipline when the Lord permitted their enemies to prevail over them. If the discipline achieved its aim, Israel would repent and the Lord would raise up a deliverer, that is, a Samson or a Gideon. It seems that the book of Ruth is set in one of the times of apostasy when Israel suffered from famine with no real leadership. It was an uncertain world. There was no prophet to speak a word from the Lord and there was no word from the priest to lead the nation back to God. It seemed as if the heavens were as brass.

Many suggest that the experience of Elimelech and Naomi with their two children occurred during the time of the Midianite oppression recorded in the book of Judges, chapter 6. This would mean that the famine was not just a natural disaster but an event that compounded the devastation that seven years of Midianite invasions had produced. Although the invaders were only loosely organized, there was a clear pattern to their tactics. Just when the freshly seeded crops had begun to sprout, hordes would erupt from across the Jordan, bringing with them their own livestock and camels, and even their tents. The raiders would set up camp at strategic locations. From there they would send their herds out in search of pasture and launch their raiding parties. Seven years of Midianite terror had a devastating effect on the Israelite economy and emotion. Like locusts, their innumerable hosts devoured every green plant in sight, leaving the land devastated, with nothing left over for the Israelite flocks and herds. Fearing the brutality of the invaders, as soon as they appeared on the horizon, the Israelites fled to the hills, transforming natural geological features into defensive strongholds.


Why did God sell Israel into the hands of their enemies? Because of sin, “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD gave them into the hand of Midian seven years” (Judges 6:1). If it was the same evil as previously recorded, then it was “going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them” (Judges 2:19). We are told that there were groves and images to Baal in Israel at that time, and that even after the remarkable victories achieved by Gideon, Israel was never fully cleansed of idolatry.

Elimelech’s family lived in Bethlehem. There was little food available. This is especially poignant inasmuch as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. There was no bread in the house of bread! They decided to escape to Moab for a while. If they had been caught up in the national apostasy and served other gods, then it would explain the attraction of Moab for them. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. If Elimelech was an Israelite committed to Jehovah he would have known better. He should have lived up to his name, which means ‘My God is King’. History should have warned him that Moab was not the place to take his wife and children. No doubt he took the course of action he did, because he thought he was doing his best for his family. However, in taking them to Moab he failed in his responsibility. In Scripture, Moab represents the flesh. The father of the nation is the son of Lot who was the child of an incestuous alliance. The activities of Moab in their relationship to Israel also support the sense that it was a sensual nation. When Israel was journeying towards Canaan, on the advice of Balaam the prophet, they offered their prettiest women to the men of Israel. Moses recorded the event. “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:1–3). Intermarrying between an Israelite and a Moabite was displeasing to God. Elimelech should not have left Israel for Moab, especially as his sons married Moabite women. The story of Elimelech’s family demonstrates what can go wrong when there is a lack of commitment to the Lord.


If we are right in placing the events of the book of Ruth into a period that spanned the Midianite oppression then the story of Gideon is pertinent. He is the one who was raised up as a deliverer. But to drive out the Midianites Gideon had to rely on God totally. Jehovah dealt very gently with Gideon in giving him sign (the wet fleece) (Judges 6.36-38) after sign (the dry fleece) (Judges 6.39,40) after sign (the telling of the dream) (Judges 7.9-15), and when Gideon was ready to go into battle, he was taught a further lesson, that is, to fight God’s battles you must have faith in Him - you cannot rely on your own strength. So God instructed him to reduce his army. It decreased from 32,000 to 10,000 when he allowed those who were afraid to go home. It was further reduced to 300 when he applied another test to his army. So God delivered Israel through Gideon and his 300, using trumpets and lamps. God’s ways are not our ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. ” (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Like Gideon, Elimelech should have trusted God and not tried to find relief in Moab. He entered on a journey which could not result in blessing. He went to Moab because he could - he had money, resources. In the meantime, Boaz, his kinsman was committed to the Lord and remained in Bethlehem turning to God in those uncertain times. They are often the best times to turn to God.

It is said, you cannot guarantee happiness when you make a choice - but you can plan against unhappiness by not making a choice you know is wrong. But most of us are not patient by nature, and the temptation to do anything but wait upon the Lord is very strong. Later in Israel’s history, King Saul demonstrated impatience when he broke the priestly protocol because he could not wait for Samuel to arrive and make an offering before a battle. It was the final rift which lost him the kingdom.

Alas, after arriving in Moab Elimelech died (we are not told of the circumstances). He had meant to go there for a while, as indicated by the word ‘sojourn’ in the opening verse of the book, but his family stayed there 10 years, and both his sons married Moabite women. His sons did not have the best of health – Mahlon means ‘weakly’; and Chillion is means ‘pining’ or ‘wasting’. They both died. So Noami, Elimelech’s wife, found herself in a foreign land ‘empty’, that is, without husband and without sons. She is away from the wonderful social structure in Israel that would have been her support. But at her lowest point, she heard good news – Jehovah had returned His favour to the nation and it was harvest time in Bethlehem – which in turn must mean that he found those that had turned to him in trouble, for example, pious Boaz. Boaz is spoken of in the Targums as one whose prayers brought back the blessing of God. He had been committed to the Lord and committed to prayer. So Naomi decided to return - the first step to undo the wrong decision. To return to home, to friends, to support, but most important of all, to God, was a very good decision, even if it had been forced upon her by her circumstances. Because the flesh had been exhausted she had nothing else to try! While you have any resource you will try and get out of trouble. Trusting God does not come naturally to us – it is a spiritual activity. The text informs us that God had used her circumstances to bring her back into the mainstream of blessing. Naomi herself confessed that God, under His name, ‘El-Shaddai’ (the all sufficient one), who should have been sufficient for Elimelech and Naomi, had taken away all her props. She was left with nothing else to lean on! God sometimes waits until we are empty before He fills us.

But the providence of God had given Naomi a resource that she did not recognise – Ruth, her daughter in law. Initially, she instructed Orpah and Ruth to return to their family home, where they might again find husbands. Although, under the Law of Moses, there was provision for them to be married again into the family of Elimelech, (the law of Levirate marriage) Naomi held out no hope that it would be possible for the wives of Mahlon and Chillion. She said, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). Like her ancestor Jacob she was expressing her pessimism. He said, “all these things are against me”; but the lesson that he had to learn from Joseph was that God can make “all things work together for good” if we cleave to Him, or in Naomi’s case, return to Him.


What Naomi did not understand was that God had found in her and Ruth two of the qualities with which He could work - repentance and loving kindness: repentance in Naomi and ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) in Ruth. Orpah took the advice of her mother in law and left, but Ruth stayed. Ruth whose name means ‘friendship’ or ‘companionship’ made one of the greatest commitments ever: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16–17). She committed herself to take the place of Naomi’s son (her husband) in Naomi’s life, for the son should care for the mother. Moreover, she committed herself to Jehovah, the God of Israel. And these commitments were not for a while, but for life.

But God was in it all, for He was aiming, through Ruth, to solve Israel’s great problem – no godly leadership! The great-grandson of Ruth was to be David, the man after God’s own heart; and the man, under God, that would both lead them and feed them. God could work through this woman, for her commitment is an aspect of her ‘hesed’ (loving kindness) which God values so highly, being a reflection of His own nature.

Next Time: Back in Bethlehem!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Living for God in a Dysfunctional World (Continued)

Studies in the Book of Esther

We continue at that point in the narrative where Haman's edict for the annihilation of all Jews in the empire had been published. Haman, with the authority of the king, had begun dispatching messengers to all parts of the empire, publicizing the decree and the rewards available to those who would participate in the genocide.

Esther, who was still in good grace with the king, no doubt in part due to her communication to him of the assassination plot, was granted an audience in which she obtained a promise that he would join her at a ‘banquet of wine’. Haman also joined them. While she had the good favour of the king, Esther proposed another banquet the following day for the king and Haman. Proud Haman, of course, was delighted to be incorporated into the immediate society of both the king and the queen. Nevertheless his pleasure was tainted because Mordecai would still not honour him. Haman’s wife and close friends advised him to execute Mordecai and be rid of him entirely. That he had the power to do so is evidence that Satan also has followers in high places. But both Satan and Haman are going to realise that one young woman, with God’s help, will be more than enough to overturn any evil plan devised against God’s ancient people for “... God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27, KJV). Haman decided to proceed with his persecution of Mordecai, and press for an immediate hanging, after which he could enjoy the high honour that was to be paid to him as a special guest at Queen Esther’s banquet. He lost no time in getting a 75 foot high gallows built.

But the Unseen Hand of God was still at work

That night the king could not sleep and so called for the journal of recent events to be read to him. Mordecai’s act of loyalty was listed in the records and so was brought to the attention of Xerxes, who asked if this faithful citizen had been rewarded for his deed. When he was advised that nothing had been done for him, he decided that Mordecai should be honoured without delay. He called for a counsellor and Haman was escorted into his presence. Haman, armed with less than the complete picture, believed that the king wished to honour him, and suggested a public reward that he would enjoy, that is to be dressed in the king’s robe, and ride the king’s steed, and have a herald precede him declaring the greatness of his person. Even as Lucifer said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14), so Haman echoed that ambition in his unimaginative request. But Lucifer learned that pride comes before a fall, and Haman did likewise. When he found that he had to personally escort and praise the very man who refused to honour him, he was inconsolable. The inevitability of his fall was then predicted by his nearest family and friends when they began to understand that Mordecai was receiving help from an unseen source.

True to his promise the king attended Esther’s banquet where she unfolded the plight of her people and herself. She still did not identify herself as Jewish at this point, only that she would be one who would suffer from this plot formed against one of the nations of the empire. The king asked who had done such a vile thing. Haman was accused. Xerxes, in some distress left the room, while Haman remained to plead for his life with Esther. When the king returned, he believed that Haman, in his absence, had behaved improperly towards his Queen and ordered his execution. The gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai was used to carry out the punishment, so fulfilling for Haman, the proverb “whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

The king’s signet ring was given to Mordecai to reverse the effects of the edict. Haman’s property was confiscated and given to Esther, and Mordecai was appointed to oversee it. They used the wealth of Haman for the relief of the Jews. So now the Jewish nation celebrates this great deliverance annually at the feast of Purim.

Is Esther a book of coincidences or is it the providence of God?

No. 1: Out of a myriad candidates Esther was chosen as queen. (No coincidence – as Mordecai expressed, ‘who knows if you have come to the throne for such a time as this?’)

No.2: Mordecai learned of an assassination plot. (No coincidence, according to the ancient Jewish writings. It was accomplished only with the help of God).

No.3 : The king could not sleep, learns of Mordecai’s loyalty and thus was prompted to reward him. (Xerxes, like Nebuchadnezzar before him, had to be compliant to the will of God.)

Other Examples of Providence

Are we confident in seeing the unseen hand of God working for the protection of His ancient people in Esther? Are there any other Scriptural incidents in which God is working His purpose out in hidden ways? It seems there are many.

For example, Eliezer, Abraham’s servant was sent to look for a bride for Isaac. He prayed, “Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:14). Rebekah was that woman. It was a sensible test, inasmuch as Eliezer was looking for a woman who would demonstrate ‘hesed’, that is, ‘loving-kindness’, a quality highly thought of by God and men. Rebekah demonstrated ‘hesed’ to a stranger and Eliezer identified the hand of God in the incident. He said, “Blessed be the LORD God of my master Abraham, who hath not left destitute my master of his mercy and his truth: I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master’s brethren” (Genesis 24:27, KJV).

Also the life of Joseph demonstrated the guidance and protection of God. The unseen hand of God is apparent in his elevation to a position in Egyptian life where he could exercise influence for good to the nations of that part of the world. This was in spite of several obstacles. He summarised his experience: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” (Genesis 45:7, ESV)

The life of William Cowper also springs to mind. Having endured many setbacks and suffered severe depression, he moved to Olney where he became great friends with John Newton. He and Newton co-authored the Olney Hymnal, of which Cowper authored 68 of the hymns. They include: “O for a closer walk with Thee” and another which he wrote after reading of the forgiveness of God in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It suggests that Cowper knew something of the working of God in providence.

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs and works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by fearful sense but trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain.
God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain.

We must be assured that God is working His purpose out as year succeeds to year. Let us make sure we are a part of His plans for ‘who knows whether we are where we are for such a time as this’. How can we ensure we are in the centre of God’s will? Let us imitate Eliezer who said, “I being in the way, the LORD led me”. Walk according to light you have and more light will be given.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Living for God

Lessons from the Life of Esther


When the Bible seeks to present God’s reign as universal, it uses examples of how He maintains a strong influence over great empires. The events of the book of Daniel are set in a vast empire ruled over by incredibly powerful men such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus, yet the message of the book is summed up in the phrase, “… that the living may know That the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:17). This is repeated several times. For example, Nebuchadnezzar was disciplined for a period: “They shall drive you from men, your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field, and they shall make you eat grass like oxen. They shall wet you with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.” (Daniel 4:25) This is rephrased in 4.26 when Nebuchadnezzar is told that his discipline would cease after he came to understand something of the sovereignty of the God of heaven: “... your kingdom shall be assured to you, after you come to know that Heaven rules.”

In the book of Esther we are again in the same great empire, albeit about a century later in its history. It is now described as stretching from India to Africa: “Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia)” (Esther 1:1). At this time there are still many Jews living in exile. So similar to the book of Daniel, Esther is written as a book of encouragement, the lesson being, ‘you are far from home, but God has not forgotten you’. It repeats the message of the book of Daniel, that God reigns even when it doesn’t look like it. To the untrained eye the book of Esther looks like a book of coincidences, but with God there are no co-incidences.

God’s First Move – Esther’s Elevation

In the capital of this vast empire, Vashti the queen had offended the king, and was to be replaced. Out of the large number of young women available, Esther was among those that were chosen to be presented to the king. But first, along with many others, she had to be dressed, educated and adorned to be fit to attend on the king. Just as Daniel’s attitude and behaviour brought him into favour with Nebuchadnezzar’s officers, Esther’s beauty, personality and poise brought her into favour with the royal attendants that were caring for the candidates, and she given all the assistance that could be offered to prepare her for her audience with the king.

As in the book of Daniel, God will lift up whom He will – this time a young woman to be queen. Early in the book it is anticipated that Ahasuerus, a Gentile, will be required by God’s sovereign will to choose Esther, a Jew, as his new queen, and this he does. On instructions from her uncle Mordecai, she did not, at least at that time, reveal that she was Jewish. But like Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, and others before her, this young woman is identified as one who will emerge as a heroine for her people. The mystery of the book is that God is only present implicitly, but not explicitly. By that we mean that He is not mentioned at any time, although we are aware of His unseen hand. Throughout the narrative the hand of God is understood to be the force behind events. Although the Hebrew people were oppressed and anti-Semitism was evident, God brought a Jewish woman into the royal court to become queen. Just as Joseph was introduced to the court of the Pharaoh and Daniel to the court of Nebuchadnezzar, Esther came to the court of Ahasuerus for a similar purpose.

   Joseph’s leadership meant food for his famine-stricken family and their eventual prosperity.

   Daniel’s leadership led to a new status of acceptance of Jews in Babylonia.

   Esther’s leadership would yield similar results.

The common element in all three is that it was God who brought about these results.

The other major character in the book is, of course, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle: “In Shushan the citadel there was a certain Jew whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite. Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives who had been captured with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away.” (Esther 2:5–6) The relationship of Mordecai to Esther is given. “And Mordecai had brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman was lovely and beautiful. When her father and mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter.” (Esther 2:5–7) Adoption in the extended family was widely practiced among the Jewish community for those who had been orphaned.

God’s Second Move – Mordecai’s Discovery

Mordecai was probably an official at court, sitting in ‘the king’s gate’. Some suggest that it was the Esther, now in a position of influence, who had Mordecai promoted. In a secular record of the same period there is made mention of an accountant who carried out an inspection tour for the king and who had a similar name. Whether it was this Mordecai we are unsure. Nevertheless it is clear that he had access to an area of the palace complex where he would be able to carry out his duties and also be aware of much that took place in higher society. It was in these surroundings that he learned of a plot. Two of the king’s officers, Bigthan and Teresh, conspired to assassinate the king. Mordecai told Esther and she told the king, giving credit to Mordecai for the information. However, the Targums suggest that Mordecai’s discovery of the plot was by God’s design, not by Mordecai’s wisdom. The assassins were caught and punished but Mordecai, in the will of God, received no reward. But it did bring both Esther and Mordecai into the good grace of the king, although at that time it seemed as if he was overlooked – a bit like Daniel in prison, forgotten by the one he had helped. But God does not forget. But God expects Mordecai, like Daniel, to exercise patience. The key fact is that the episode was recorded in a book. As the narrative unfolds we will see Ahasuerus, a man of great power, required to be compliant to the will of God.

Haman is introduced

As in Daniel, there is an evil influence at large, always ready to try to thwart the purposes of God. As the unseen hand of God is evident for good, so the unseen hand of Satan is evident for evil. The Devil is going to use Haman, an Agagite, to try and destroy the Jewish nation. This is a reference to the old enemy of Israel, the Amalekites, whom Israel fought after the exodus. They are spoken of as implacable enemies of God who would war with him “from generation to generation” (Exod.17:16). Haman was promoted, and like his evil master, his pride and ego knew no bounds. As evidence of his promotion above all the princes in the empire, he required people to bow and make obeisance to him as he rode past, in accordance with the king’s commandment. But Mordecai refused to bow to him … because he was a Jew. The exact reason for Mordecai’s reluctance is not given. It could be because, in the society in which he was placed, some high dignitaries claimed honour because of the god they served. If that was the case then there is an echo of the problem that the three Hebrews faced when they refused to bow to the golden image. One Targum suggests that no self-respecting Benjamite would bow to an Amalekite. Whatever the reason, Haman was outraged and plotted his revenge on all Jews. Haman’s actions reveal how deep his anti-Semitic feelings ran.

Haman, described as the Jews’ enemy, brings an accusation to the king, an accusation that has been regularly expressed by many of those who wish to do them despite. He said, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from all other people’s, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore it is not fitting for the king to let them remain” (Esther 3:8). Haman was a spokesman for the Devil, the true enemy of the Jews, described in the New Testament as “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev.12:10). They cast the ‘pur’, the lot, to set the date for the extermination of the race. They sought to guarantee the cooperation of the nations in which the Jewish people were dispersed, by declaring the possessions of all Hebrews to be spoil that could be taken by those engaged in the genocide. ‘Pur’ is a Hebrew form of the Babylonian ‘Puru’ which means ‘lot’ but also means ‘fate’. The casting of the lot would be part of the duty of the astrologers to find the most favourable day in which to carry out this devilish plan. On hearing the news, Mordecai immediately entered into mourning, tearing his clothes and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Esther was advised of Mordecai’s dress and countenance, but did not yet know of the decree. She contacted him through messengers and heard of the plight of her people. Mordecai instructed her to go in to the king, and intercede for them, but she spoke of the danger. She advised Mordecai that those that enter the king’s presence without an invitation could face execution. “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live” (Esther 4:11) Moreover, I have not been called to go in to the king these thirty days.

The response of Mordecai was measured: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13–14). Mordecai hit the nail on the head! Even so, Esther’s response was magnificent: “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish! (Esther 4:16 (emphasis added).

To be continued

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Living for God in a Dysfunctional World (Continued)

We continue the study - 'Lessons from the Life of Joseph'

Joseph’s Elevation

The fullness of Joseph’s blessedness was accomplished by him fulfilling the responsibility to which he was called, as second in command to Pharaoh. We can only stand back in amazement when we realise the magnitude of all that God can do through an individual who is given is over to His will. In order to bring about (1) the elevation of Joseph; (2) the security of Jacob and his family; (3) the protection of His purpose, (4) while saving nations from a natural calamity, God gave the Egyptian ruler two dreams. This was done, in the sure understanding that only one man in the kingdom could interpret them; and knowing also that information could be supplied so that Pharaoh would meet God’s servant.

At the suggestion of the chief butler, Joseph was taken from the prison to the palace to interpret the king’s dreams. Joseph was already aware of God’s hand upon him and confident of the will of God when he stood before the ruler of all Egypt. So when Pharaoh said to Joseph: “I have had a dream, and there is no one who can interpret it. But I have heard it said of you that you can understand a dream, to interpret it.” (Gen. 41:15) Joseph was ready with his answer: “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh an answer of peace” (Gen.41:16). Joseph’s experiences had been training him for that moment. Like David, who was able to say that because God was with him when he fought the lion and the bear, God would be with him when he fought Goliath; Joseph could stand before the ruler of a great civilisation with the same confidence. In the same way that God had protected and blessed him in life, that is, in his family, in Potiphar’s household and in the state prison; he was able to have every confidence that, in the will of God, he would continue to have access to divine wisdom in Pharaoh’s presence.

Pharaoh’s first dream entailed two sets of seven cows that emerged from the Nile. The grassy banks of the Nile provided a habitat for animals and birds. The first set of well-fed cattle was seen feeding on the plant life that flourished there - clearly representing a peaceful and thriving time. The second group that emerged was opposite in appearance, “ugly and gaunt”, in strong contrast to the healthy cows. Unlike the fat specimens, these bony cows were not feeding on the grass, and in the dream the emaciated cattle consumed the fair cattle – surely a bad omen. At this Pharaoh woke up.

The second dream concerned a staple in Egyptian agricultural life, grain production. The narrative describes the dream as vividly present to the mind’s eye. The first set of seven “heads of grain” paralleled the fat cattle in their appealing heartiness. That they were sprouting from a “one stalk” testified to their potency. The second set of grain was scrawny due to the searing heat of the desert’s blasting “east wind”. The scorched heads of grain correspond to the unsightly cows in the first dream. As the ugly cows “ate up” the fat ones so the thin heads of grain “devoured” the plump grain.

The two dreams were another prophecy – this time of a natural calamity – a seven year famine, a famine so severe that it could be called catastrophic – the grain fields of Egypt would be devastated. However, this advance warning also contained intelligence of seven years of good harvests. Joseph was able to advise the Egyptian ruler to store grain during the good years to overcome the lean years. Pharaoh was well pleased with Joseph’s wisdom in interpreting his dreams, and with his counsel, so he elevated him to be Lord over all Egypt (Gen. 41:40 ff). The only one to be excluded from his authority was Pharaoh himself. These events propelled Joseph from the prison cell to the royal court, from a humble prison uniform to the rich dress of rulers, from the lowly position of slave and prisoner to ruler over all Egypt. Thus the first part of Joseph’s personal prophetic dreams had come to fulfilment. But the purposes of God ripen slowly, and it would be several years yet before the sons of Jacob take their first journey into Joseph’s domain.

In the meantime Joseph put into place a programme for harvesting and storing grain during the seven years of abundance. He commissioned purpose-built granaries which he filled to overflowing. These years were followed by seven years of famine “over all the face of the earth” (Gen.41:56) when “all countries came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain” (Gen. 41:57). Thus “Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, for the grain which they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house” (Gen. 47:14). Afterwards all the cattle and all the land, and at last the Egyptians themselves, became the property of Pharaoh. Joseph was now the highest dignity in the land, apart from Pharaoh, and his increased stature was accompanied by marriage and the birth of two sons, Manasseh, whose name means ‘God has made me forget’ and Ephraim which means ‘double fruitfulness’. These are the sons that will evidence that Joseph, under the hand of God, received the double portion normally reserved for the first-born son. The double portion was normally given to the first born because he had extra responsibilities in the family. Joseph carried those responsibilities and got the double portion. The lists of the twelve tribes of Israel usually include both Ephraim and Manasseh but exclude Joseph. In other words Joseph’s family became two tribes not one, that is, a double portion. But Ephraim means ‘double fruitfulness’ and this truth is captured by Jacob when he blessed his sons. He described Joseph as a fruitful bough whose branches hung over the wall.

Joseph’s Reconciliation

During this period of famine, Joseph’s brothers also came down to Egypt to buy corn. The history of his dealings with them, and of the manner in which he at length made himself known to them, is one of the most interesting narratives that can be read (Gen. 42–45). While space does not allow for a detailed examination of the encounters, the main points can be summarised.

When the famine bit in Canaan, Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain; only Benjamin, his youngest and the only remaining son (as he thought) of his beloved wife Rachel, was kept back. Benjamin was brother to Joseph as none of the others were, having the same mother. Joseph, fully assimilated into Egyptian life and speaking Egyptian, was present when the sons of Jacob arrived among the many to buy corn. Dressed as Semites they were quickly recognised by Joseph and he was overjoyed to see them. However, with the wisdom that comes from communion with the Lord, he decided to ensure that there was a measure of repentance in these men before he took them into his care. Remaining incognito he devised a plan, in which he first ascertained that his father and Benjamin were alive and well. By a series of actions he subjected the brothers to mental anguish similar to that which he suffered some decades previously. While holding Simeon as hostage, Joseph directed his brethren to return to Canaan and bring Benjamin back to Egypt. When they finally returned with Benjamin, and he was convinced that they had shown enough remorse, he revealed himself to them saying “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:4-5). He then pleaded with them to bring his father Jacob and the rest of the family to Egypt, saying, “Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph: “God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near to me, you and your children, your children’s children, your flocks and your herds, and all that you have. There I will provide for you, lest you and your household, and all that you have, come to poverty; for there are still five years of famine’” (Gen. 45:9–11).

So it was that Jacob and his family, totalling seventy souls, together with all that they had, went down to Egypt. They settled in the land of Goshen, where Joseph met his father, and “and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while” (Gen. 46:29). So Jacob, at 130 years of age, lived in Goshen. He was granted an audience with Pharaoh, and while there blessed the Egyptian leader! As Joseph spent his first 17 years in Jacob’s care, so Jacob spent his last 17 years in Joseph’s care.

The great lesson that is visible in the rejection and elevation of Joseph is seen in the providential dealings of God in bringing blessing to a wider public through one young man, even though he was born into a dysfunctional family. While Jacob said, 'all these things are against me”, Joseph understood that “all things were working together for good”. Joseph said, “God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45:7). God’s providence is still the same, and for we who live in a dysfunctional world, we must remain confident in the belief that for us too “all things work together for good”.

The historical record of Joseph in Genesis ends with an expression of his faith. He gave instructions regarding his bones, that when they return to Canaan as God promised, they would bury him in the Promised Land (Gen.50:25).

More next time

Friday, August 6, 2010

Living for God in a Dysfunctional World (Continued)

We continue our study in the life of Joseph

Joseph’s Exile

The conspirators, for that is what they had become, planned to kill him, but Reuben interposed. As the elder brother, and responsible to his father for the safety of the youngest in the group, he persuaded them to imprison him in a pit, expecting to rescue him later. Joseph, realising the gravity of the situation had anguish of soul. He was distressed and called out for mercy – pleas that fell on deaf ears (Gen.42.21). To be rejected by his own brothers must have been very hard to handle. It is so difficult to hold on to the truth that “... all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28), when circumstances are contrary to what we would wish for ourselves. But in this dysfunctional family Reuben’s leadership is already weakening, so when he was absent, Judah persuaded the rest of his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave. They sold him to a company of Ishmaelite merchants for twenty pieces of silver, for they cared little what they had for him just so they could be rid of him. No doubt each received two pieces of silver, although it could be that Reuben refused his share. Whatever the division of the spoils, all were culpable (except Benjamin, who knew nothing of this event). When Reuben returned to the pit Joseph had already been sold and Reuben was as one who had been bereaved. He was aware of the principle – what a man sows that will he also reap – for he repeats it years later in Egypt, when they are mystified by the interest of Pharoah’s chief officer. At that time Reuben repeats what he must have charged his brothers with many times before - “Did I not speak to you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Therefore behold, his blood is now required of us” (Gen. 42:22). He will also feel it keenly when later in the narrative he feels compelled to offer his own sons as security for Benjamin.

But how were they to explain the absence of Joseph to Jacob? Those that leave the straight path always seem to be resourceful. They daubed Joseph’s coat in the blood of a young goat, newly slain. The manufactured evidence was enough to convince Jacob that Joseph was dead. How he must have rued the decision to send his favourite son on that mission. This family is in such a mess – but at least Joseph is now out of the contamination of their dysfunctional home life. Although some would say, ‘out of the frying pan into the fire!’

Joseph in Egypt

The Ishmaelite merchants were going down to Egypt. There they sold him on as a slave to Potiphar, an “officer of Pharaoh, and captain of the guard” (Gen. 37:36). Traumatic for Joseph but in God’s purposes, this is another step to the right hand of the throne of Pharaoh. The Lord was with Joseph: “So it was, from the time that he (Potiphar) had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had in the house and in the field ” (Gen. 39:5). Because Potiphar treated Joseph well, God treated Potiphar well, as is established in the Abrahamic covenant – “I will bless those who bless you” (Gen. 12:3).

But the devil is always on the lookout for an opportunity to ruin God’s chosen, and uses a ploy that has been successful on countless occasions. Joseph who was young, able bodied and handsome, came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife, and she tried to seduce him. But Joseph resisted the adulterous proposal, referring to the unlimited confidence which his master had placed in him. Potiphar had given everything over to him except her, because she was his wife. How could he so abuse this confidence, do this great wickedness and sin against God? This test of Joseph’s fidelity was repeated time and again, until on one occasion when they were alone together, she caught him by his coat – but he, realizing the gravity of the situation left in great haste, leaving his coat behind. In a dysfunctional world, those that remain true to God will have many temptations to resist. Perhaps this episode was in the mind of Paul when he advised Timothy to flee youthful lusts and follow righteousness (2 Tim.2:22). When this daring assault on Joseph’s integrity failed, Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of physically forcing himself on her, a total distortion of the facts. She produced the coat and once again, a garment was used as evidence for a lie. The devil’s strategy seemed to have succeeded, that is, deception with a view to destruction, for Joseph was cast into the state prison where he remained for several years.

This time, Joseph is cast down further, into a new house—a prison house, a dungeon. Each time, the pit gets deeper (Gen. 37:22, Gen. 40:15); yet always the LORD is with him (Gen. 39:21). The blessing begins afresh! The warden of the prison notices that God is with Joseph to prosper him, and he elevates him to head the prison household (Gen. 39:22–23); for God has said, they that honour me I will honour, so even in prison he enjoyed the blessing of the Lord. All this was training for Joseph. First – in charge of a Potiphar’s household – then in charge of the prison household – soon in charge of the nation, each stage confirming that God was with him and each stage increasing his confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Soon he is going to realise, just as Daniel will many centuries later, that God raises up whom he will. At what stage he is aware that all things are working together for good we are not sure, but certainly he will come to that conclusion long before he sees his brothers again.

While he was responsible for Pharaoh’s prisoners, the chief of Pharaoh’s cupbearers and the chief of Pharaoh’s bakers were cast into prison. After some time in prison, each of these new prisoners dreamed a dream in the same night. As Pharaoh will find out, and in another land and at another time in history, Nebuchadnezzar will find out, there is no-one who is immune from the voice of God. They had a presentiment that the dreams were important, and in the morning when Joseph enquired why they were troubled, they told their dreams. The chief butler spoke first – his dream indicated that he would again handle Pharaoh’s wine goblet. Joseph revealed that he would be restored to his former position in three days, a very favourable interpretation which was pleasing to the former court official. Joseph added a rider to his short explanation – a request - please remember me when you are again in Pharaoh’s favour; not simply because I have been kind to you, but because it will also be a righteous act, for I am innocent of any crime.

The chief baker, on hearing such good news for the butler, tells his own dream. Alas the interpretation is not in his favour – his head will be lifted also, but not in the same way as the chief butler – it will be lifted off his shoulders – he will lose his life. The events occur exactly as Joseph said. The butler was restored to his former position, while the baker was executed. That one should live and one should die is a repetition of the theme that these events are matters of life and death. At the time of Joseph’s first rejection it was God’s providential care that allowed him to live and not die. And God’s providential care was seen again when Joseph was Lord of Egypt, for the message then was ‘come to Joseph and live’. He was the Saviour and nourisher of his brothers and also of nations, prefiguring Jesus of Nazareth who is, on a much higher plane, the Saviour of the world. The message now is ‘come to Jesus and live’.

Joseph had asked Pharaoh’s chief butler to remember him, but he forgot him and another two years pass. God’s timetable cannot be hurried. Joseph was learning another lesson. These difficult experiences that we are called upon to pass through are so that we may learn patience. James wrote: “... the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:3), the purpose of which is “… that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:4), that is fully stocked up for passers-by. Jesus said that God, the great husbandman, will use the pruning shears to produce fruit, then more fruit, then even more fruit – with the purpose that the fruit produced will be worthy of the husbandman who owns the vine (John 15). Joseph’s training was designed to bring him to a full maturity in the service of God, to be fruitful as indicated by Jacob’s last words, “Joseph is a fruitful bough, A fruitful bough by a well; His branches run over the wall” (Gen. 49:22). The fruitful bough by a well, reminds us of Psalm. 1. “Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper ” (Psalm 1:1–3). Joseph was that kind of godly man. He did not follow the counsel of the ungodly; He did not follow the path of sin: He did not scoff at God’s plan for his life; His relationship with God – his spirituality – his faith - his wisdom – his generosity - his diligence – his forgiving spirit - all made him a channel of blessing for many nations (“blessed is the man”).