Providence in strange places

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Providence in strange places

January 10, 2023 -

People gather near the Western Wall in Jerusalem at sunset with the Dome of the Rock in the background. © By rudi1976/

People gather near the Western Wall in Jerusalem at sunset with the Dome of the Rock in the background. © By rudi1976/

People gather near the Western Wall in Jerusalem at sunset with the Dome of the Rock in the background. © By rudi1976/

I returned last week from leading my thirty-fifth study tour of Israel. Each time I go, I am amazed again by the tiny dimensions of the country. A nation roughly the size of New Jersey has been the “hinge of history” for four millennia and continues to be so today.

They have their political problems, just like all nations, as the current unrest with the Netanyahu government illustrates. They are dealing with border conflicts, inflation, and rising crime just as we are in the US.

But the ongoing vitality of the State of Israel reminds me each time I visit that God is truly the king of the universe and ruler of nations, though he so often rules in ways I would never have imagined or anticipated.  As William Cowper observed, “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.”

One such way he has worked helps explain the continuing miracle that is Israel and gives me great comfort and encouragement as this new year begins.

“Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury”

I read through the Bible each year by following a pattern I learned many years ago: if you begin on January 1 with Genesis 1, Ezra 1, Psalm 1, and Matthew 1, then continue in that fashion, you can fairly well finish Scripture each year (the end of the year requires some engineering, but it all works out).

As a result, on the day after we returned from the Holy Land, I read Ezra 6 and was surprised by what I found. Even though I read this chapter every year on January 6, I had not taken note of the remarkable providence it reveals.

The story actually begins in Ezra 5 when opponents of the temple rebuilding project wrote the Persian King Darius asking if the Jews were working with his permission (vv. 6–17). The king then “made a decree, and search was made in Babylonia, in the house of the archives where the documents were stored” (Ezra 6:1). They found the degree issued by Cyrus that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their city and temple (vv. 3–5).

Within that decree was this surprising specification: “Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury” (v. 4). Furthermore, “also let the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be restored and brought back to the temple that is in Jerusalem, each to its place. You shall put them in the house of God” (v. 5).

As a result, Darius instructed the enemies of the Jews to “keep away” (v. 6) and to finance the rebuilding project “from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River” (v. 8). They were to supply “whatever is needed . . . day by day without fail” (v. 9).

Consequently, “the Jews “finished their building by the decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king” (vv. 14–15). And “the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (v. 16).

An empowering life principle

Let’s summarize: the Jewish nation rebuilt the temple of God using funds supplied by the Persian king and his local governors. Then they utilized the implements of temple worship that had been preserved by the Babylonian king when he destroyed their temple decades earlier.

As the saying goes, you couldn’t make this up.

From this remarkable narrative, we can discern this life principle: you are where you are and when you are by divine providence.

We all understand that God has a place for us to serve. My wife and I believe that God called us to pastor in Mansfield, Texas, then to serve on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth, then to pastor in Midland, Atlanta, and Dallas, then to build this ministry headquartered in Dallas. You undoubtedly have a similar story of divine leadership to the various places you have served.

But it is good also to remember that God has a will not only for where we serve but for when we serve. It was by divine providence that Cyrus came to the Persian throne following the Babylonian conquest of Israel (cf. Isaiah 45). It was by divine providence that Darius found Cyrus’s decree when he did.

As a result of the work they authorized and supported, the nation and temple were rebuilt and worship of the one true God restored. And that nation, five centuries hence, produced the Messiah who came to save all of humanity and make us the temple of his Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16).

In the same way, God called you where you are but also when you are. It is by his providence that you are serving him now and not a century in the past or a century in the future (if he tarries). He designed your life from the moment of your conception (Psalm 139:13–16) to the moment of your homegoing (John 14:3).

The eternal significance of present faithfulness

As a result, know this: If God could not use you in this cultural moment, you would not be in this cultural moment. You are a missionary to a specific place and time. God would not commission you to your kingdom assignment if he could not use you effectively in that assignment.

This fact sustains me when I become discouraged by the moral trajectory of our culture, the continuing rise of opposition to biblical truth, and the unique challenges we face in this season of technological and medical innovation without ethical moorings. As daunting as these challenges are, I must be able to meet them in the strength of the Lord or I would not be called to engage them.

The same is true of you.

The God who used Cyrus, Darius, and Nebuchadnezzar to advance his agenda in ancient Israel is using the nations and events of our day to advance his agenda in our time. And he is using you to this end in ways you can see and in ways you cannot.

You cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.

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