Sorry, Ezra, I’m dropping you for Nehemiah

I attended church services during my last two years as a student – also my first two years as a Christian. The preacher was invariably our pastor.

I later learned that the elders, who had discerned God’s voice and called him to be pastor, had been adamant that God had called him to preach and teach principally in the congregation, not elsewhere. He agreed.

Mr Prime – no one called him Derek or Reverend – was not a charismatic. He was not scholarly. He was not tall, dark and handsome (smile). He was a gentle, bold man, on fire for God. He spoke clearly. Some say with a preachy tone. His sermons were never longer than 25 minutes.

During my last year at Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, Mr Prime preached through the book of Ezra. I was deeply moved by his sermon on Ezra 7:10 “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”

All his sermons were recorded and could be purchased on cassettes. I only ever bought one of them: his sermon on Ezra 7:10. I listened to it over and over again. I knew Mr Prime’s voice was God’s voice to me.

That sermon probably explains why I own many Bible commentaries, why I’ve attended many courses conducted by churches and seminaries and why I’ve read through the Bible several times.

But that sermon is also the reason I’m still in shock that now I’m drawn more to Nehemiah than to Ezra.

Last month, my Bible-in-a-year reading plan had me in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. I was so drawn by Nehemiah that I’ve listened to readings of Nehemiah several times and feel drawn to write about Nehemiah.

Sorry, Ezra, this is a breakup. I’m leaving you for Nehemiah. I know you understand. I know you know the voice is unmistakable and irresistible.

Ezra was a priest and teacher of the law of Moses, of Jewish faith, pride and practices.

Like Ezra, Nehemiah was a Jew, a member of a small minority, in Persia. Unlike Ezra, Nehemiah worked in the political arena, was highly trained in politics, highly paid and was a highly trusted adviser to the King of Persia.

Actually, the text tells us Nehemiah was “cupbearer.” Unless you use a study Bible, use Bible reading notes, consult commentaries, or study with others, you’ll miss the impact of the title “cupbearer.”

We don’t know why, but many centuries of Bible history tell us it’s a fact: if you read the Bible alone and without study tools, you will not understand it the way God intends it to be understood. You will fall into the dangers of “private interpretation” and eisegesis, reading meaning into a text rather than drawing meaning from it, exegesis.

I often consult The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, published by IVP in 1980.

The entry for cupbearer discusses the two cupbearers who are named in the Bible (the other is Joseph in Egypt), and Solomon’s cupbearers who were probably members of the royal court which so impressed the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 2:5, 2 Chronicles 9:4).

The entry tells us it was common for cupbearers to be foreigners. Hmm… I wonder whether the cupbearers of the Kings of Israel and Judah were foreigners.

It also tells us cupbearers were often confidants and favourites of the Kings, wielded political influence, and had access to the royal ear. Many sons of the soil must have been jealous of them!

I promise you, I’m not attracted to Nehemiah because of the wine. (I’m pretty sure cupbearers weren’t allowed to drink much, since they had to remain sober in order to choose, test, taste and serve the wine.)

I think I’m attracted to Nehemiah because he was the kind of person whom we find so hard to imagine today: he was a ‘minority man’ holding vast power; he was a ‘spiritual’ man in that he prayed, fasted and sought God’s will (Nehemiah 1); he was a man who obeyed God’s will, not man’s.

In other words, he was a spiritual politician. What a radical thought!

God willing, I will write a series of short reflections on Nehemiah in the days to come. May my voice be to you like that of Mr Prime’s to me.

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